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

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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
  10. Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow
  11. Bread Givers by Anya Yezierska
  12. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  13. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
  14. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
  15. Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall
  16. Christodora by Tim Murphy
  17. City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling
  18. Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether
  19. Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
  20. Dreamland by Kevin Baker
  21. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
  22. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
  23. Fever by Mary Beth Keane
  24. Forever by Pete Hamill
  25. Fury by Salman Rushdie
  26. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
  27. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  28. Going Down by Jennifer Belle
  29. Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older
  30. Heyday by Kurt Andersen
  31. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
  32. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  33. It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
  34. Jazz by Toni Morrison
  35. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
  36. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCan
  37. Lowboy by John Wray
  38. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
  39. Lush Life by Richard Price
  40. Maggie, a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
  41. Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos
  42. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
  43. Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
  44. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
  45. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
  46. Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee
  47. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
  48. Nevada by Imogen Binnie
  49. Open City by Teju Cole
  50. Passing by Nella Larsen
  51. Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
  52. Push by Sapphire
  53. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
  54. Re Jane by Patricia Park
  55. Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam
  56. Rules of Civility: A Novel by Amor Towles
  57. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
  58. Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York by Marge Piercy
  59. Sima’s Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross
  60. Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
  61. Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce
  62. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
  63. Speedboat by Renata Adler
  64. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  65. The Alienist by Caleb Carr
  66. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  67. The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
  68. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
  69. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVelle
  70. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  71. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  72. The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
  73. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  74. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  75. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
  76. The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
  77. The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
  78. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  79. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  80. The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
  81. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  82. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  83. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  84. The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York by Mat Johnson
  85. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
  86. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
  87. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
  88. The Prince of West End Avenue by Alan Isler
  89. The Street by Ann Petry
  90. The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer
  91. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
  92. The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger
  93. The Warmest December by Bernice L. McFadden
  94. Time and Again by Jack Finney
  95. Underworld by Don DeLillo
  96. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
  97. Washington Square by Henry James
  98. Watchmen by Alan Moore
  99. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
  100. Zone One by Colson Whitehead