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There’s no better season than summer to kick back with a stack of good books, and as luck would have it, the stories hitting shelves right now are as intelligent as they are compulsively page-turning. Don’t be put off by the fact that so many are considered literary fiction; these novels are every bit as entertaining and addictive—if a bit more thought-provoking—as summer’s typical soapy beach reads.
Here are 12 that have consistently topped every “must-read” list this season.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Reviews of Danler’s buzzy, sexy new novel, set in the New York City food world during the mid-2000s, have been not only fast and furious—everyone from the New York Times to Goodreads users are talking about it—but also effusive. The writer worked for years as a waitress, including at the famous Union Square Café—the model for the book’s fictional restaurant—but it’s not just a juicy tell-all about food-world hierarchy; there’s also plenty of sex, drugs, and a love triangle. If you still need convincing, Sweetbitter’s already number 14 on the Times’ list of best-selling hardcovers—a coup for a new author and a brand-new book.
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
Martha’s Vineyard, 1976: Fern and Edgar—wealthy, married with three kids—are preparing for a family birthday when they learn they’re suddenly broke. The novel follows the family’s unraveling, as each parent in a state of distress embarks on separate trips: she with a stranger, he on a sailing voyage with another woman. The problem? They leave their three children—9-year-old Cricket and 6-year-old twins—alone, with no guardian whatsoever.
The Girls by Emma Cline (June 14)
This debut novel is the definition of buzz—it reportedly sold for $2 million in a three-book deal after being the subject of an intense bidding war among every major publisher in the country—so get ready to hear about it all summer and see it on the big screen eventually, as the film rights already belong to producer Scott Rudin. The novel focuses on bored, unhappy 14-year old Evie who, in the late 1960s, gets sucked into a Manson-like cult.
by Jade Sharma (July 5)
Believe it or not, it is possible to infuse a bit of wit into a novel about heroin addiction. Described as “Girls” meets “Trainspotting,” Problems focuses on Maya, a young Brooklynite whose part-time heroin hobby isn’t much fun anymore. She’s been able to get by in New York on her wits and a dead-end bookstore job, but when her husband leaves her and her favorite professor ends their affair, she has to make some big choices.
We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley
This psychological thriller has been racking up raves thanks to its juicy premise: Fancy 43-year-old Manhattanite Catherine West has everything—a designer wardrobe, personal trainer, West Village apartment, hefty trust fund—except the family she’s always wanted. Then, at an art gala, she meets charming William Stockton and they’re engaged within months. However, Catherine’s mother—suffering from Alzheimer’s—shuts down at the mention of William’s name. Why? Why, too, is William so alarmed when Catherine sifts through his stash of childhood photos? And what’s the meaning of the note from her former nanny, neatly taped in her mother’s old diary—“we cannot trust anyone to care for us fully”?
Sweet Lamb of Heaven
by Lydia Millet
Among the words and phrases being used to describe Lydia Millet’s new metaphysical thriller are chilling, addictive, and extraordinary. The plot centers around a young mother, Anna, desperate to escape her cold, unfaithful husband, a businessman who’s just launched his first campaign for political office. When Ned chases Anna and their six-year-old daughter from Alaska to Maine, the two go into hiding in a run-down motel on the coast, but the longer they stay, the more she realizes the guests share a specific experience Anna has had in her past, and the less her husband resembles a typical candidate. For what it’s worth, Slate has compared Millet’s tale to Stephen King’s work.
by Camille Perri
“If the characters from HBO’s ‘Girls’ were capable of larceny and blackmail,” is how Publisher’s Weekly described this debut novel, while Booklist said it’s “reminiscent of the golden era of early-aughts chick-lit.” In other words, it’s the definition of a summer read. The story centers around 30-year-old executive assistant Tina Fontanat, who excels at her job and is beloved by her powerful media-titan boss but is saddled with student loans and growing ennui.
When a technical error with her boss’s expense report presents Tina with the opportunity to pay off her debts without any repercussions, she starts working on a morally questionable plan—and other assistants want in.
An Innocent Fashion
by R.J. Hernandez (July 5)
Described as The Devil Wears Prada meets The Bell Jar, this novel follows Elián San Jamar, who—desperate to escape to his middle-class Texan upbringing—gets a full ride to Yale and befriends Madeline and Dorian, both wealthy and privileged students. With their help, he reinvents himself as Ethan St. James and lands a job at leading New York fashion magazine Régine. Starting at the bottom—and dealing with his identity and sexuality—Ethan eventually begins to unravel.
A Wife of Noble Character
by Yvonne Georgina Puig
A Texan comedy of manners, Puig’s comic novel centers around Houston’s high-powered oil-money elite, namely 30-year-old Vivienne Cally, who—orphaned and raised by her regal aunt—was taught to rely on her beauty and Texas tradition and is expected to marry rich. Expect plenty of Wharton-esque social commentary and satire.
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam
This buzzy new novel—it’s topped list after list of summer must-reads—follows lifelong best friends Sarah and Lauren, one rich and one pretty. Set in New York circa now, we see how the girls—as they move into their thirties—navigate the complexities of family, envy, success, sex, marriage, and friendship.
China Rich Girlfriend
by Kevin Kwan (June 16)
A follow-up to 2013’s laugh-out-loud satirical send-up Crazy Rich Asians, which centered on super-rich, vapid, pedigreed Chinese families and the gossip, backbiting, and scheming that occurs when the heir to one of the most massive fortunes in Asia brings home his ABC (American-born Chinese) girlfriend to the wedding of the season. In China Rich Girlfriend, we have our two protagonists—ABC Rachel Chu and wealthy Nicholas Young—preparing for their own wedding while Chu searches for her birth father.
In the Country We Love: My Family Divided
by Diane Guerrero
Guerrero—who you’d probably recognize from Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, writes a beautiful memoir that, at its center, is the story of undocumented immigrants in the US—and she speaks from experience. Guerrero was 14 years old on the day her parents were detained and deported while she was at school. Born in the US, Guerrero was able to remain in the country and continue her education, depending on family friends who took her in.