100 Must-Read New York City Novels

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Rachel Manwill

Staff Writer

Rachel Manwill is an editor, writer, and professional nomad. Twice a year, she runs the #24in48 readathon, during which she does almost no reading. She's always looking for an excuse to recommend a book, whether you ask her for one or not. When she's not ranting about comma usage for her day job as a corporate editor, she's usually got an audiobook in her ears and a puppy in her lap. Blog: A Home Between Pages Twitter: @rachelmanwill

While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Tuesday, January 3rd.

This post originally ran January 28, 2016.

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In a way that nearly no other place can, New York City is often utilized in fiction as a character unto itself. It is a living, breathing entity and when a writer places a story in a particular time in New York – even in a particular neighborhood – she is doing something very specific in the message she is trying to convey.

The five boroughs – Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island – serve as the backdrop for so many iconic stories that compiling this list actually required a significant narrowing of the qualifications. With publication dates spanning from the early 1800s through this week, the novels on this list cover an even broader range of the city’s history. All the way from its founding as New Amsterdam to a future (and fantastical) Gotham, they include the best and worst moments in New York’s lifetime.

For the purposes of this list, I looked only at adult novels. I could’ve created an entirely separate list for nonfiction or for YA or even for theater. The common thread is not just novels that use New York City as a setting, but ones that render the city as a fully realized character in the story.  Here are 100 novels of New York City. I hope you’ll discover classics you haven’t read, unknown gems you’ve never heard of, and modern additions that round out the richness of NYC’s storytelling tradition. You’ll find entries from Harlem Renaissance writers, stories of the Gilded Age, immigrant narratives from a huge range of cultures, modern tales of both excess and famine, and everything in between.

  1. 1876: A Novel by Gore Vidal
  2. A History of New York by Washington Irving
  3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara
  4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  5. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  6. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
  7. Another Country by James Baldwin
  8. Ashes of Fiery Weather by Kathleen Donohoe
  9. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
  • Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow
  • Bread Givers by Anya Yezierska
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
  • Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
  • Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall
  • Christodora by Tim Murphy
  • City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling
  • Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether
  • Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
  • Dreamland by Kevin Baker
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
  • Fever by Mary Beth Keane
  • Forever by Pete Hamill
  • Fury by Salman Rushdie
  • Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  • Going Down by Jennifer Belle
  • Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older
  • Heyday by Kurt Andersen
  • How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
  • Jazz by Toni Morrison
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCan
  • Lowboy by John Wray
  • Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
  • Lush Life by Richard Price
  • Maggie, a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
  • Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos
  • Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
  • Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
  • Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
  • My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
  • Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee
  • Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
  • Nevada by Imogen Binnie
  • Open City by Teju Cole
  • Passing by Nella Larsen
  • Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
  • Push by Sapphire
  • Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
  • Re Jane by Patricia Park
  • Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam
  • Rules of Civility: A Novel by Amor Towles
  • Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
  • Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York by Marge Piercy
  • Sima’s Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross
  • Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
  • Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce
  • Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
  • Speedboat by Renata Adler
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
  • The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVelle
  • The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok
  • The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
  • The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
  • The Ex by Alafair Burke
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  • The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York by Mat Johnson
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
  • The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
  • The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
  • The Prince of West End Avenue by Alan Isler
  • The Street by Ann Petry
  • The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer
  • The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger
  • The Warmest December by Bernice L. McFadden
  • Time and Again by Jack Finney
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo
  • Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
  • Washington Square by Henry James
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore
  • Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead