Absolute Beginners: 20 Must-Read Debut Novels of 2020

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Liberty Hardy

Senior Contributing Editor

Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading. Twitter: @MissLiberty

This list of 2020 debut novels is sponsored by Book Riot’s new literary fiction podcast Novel Gazing.

Novel Gazing is your destination for all things literary fiction, bringing you news from the world of fiction, and recommendations for under the radar reads, works in translation, buzzy books, and more. Stay in the know, expand your TBR and your view of literary fiction, and, of course, have some laughs with hosts Mary Kay McBrayer and Louise Johnson. Novel Gazing is a biweekly show available wherever you get your podcasts–go listen to episode one now!

I wish I could write a novel. I mean, not enough to sit down and try, and I don’t have any ideas even if I did, so I’m willing to bet it’s never going to happen. But still! As someone who reads a ton of novels, and appreciates the people who do write books, it sounds so exciting to have written one! And how amazing it must feel when you release your debut novel.

I do not write books, but I often wonder if writing your first book is the hardest. We as a society certainly put a lot of stock in debut novels. And while I know that you can’t judge a career by an author’s first book, I love the new crop of debut novels every year, with all their new voices, and the amazing potential.

Or alternately, some of each year’s incredible debut novels are by authors who normally publish poetry, nonfiction, or story collections. And they’ve now taken a stab at a novel, and succeeded!

It will not surprise you that there are so many amazing debut novels rolling out in 2020. It was incredibly hard for me to pick just 20 for this list, because I admire most anyone who can sit down and arrange that many words into something that moves us, and makes us happy. But, alas, I cannot put them all on this list, or I would be writing this post until the end of time.

So here are 20 of the must-read debut novels of 2020. I hope you discover something wonderful here. And a reminder that one of my favorite debut novels of the last several years, Such a Fun Age, actually came out on December 31, 2019, and you should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

Topics of Conversation book coverTopics of Conversation: A novel by Miranda Popkey (Knopf, January 7)

This is an explosive first book! It’s a slim novel of two decades of conversations between friends, with frank talk about love, motherhood, anger, shame, assault, and more. It’s hard-hitting, but amazing. Fans of Sally Rooney and Jenny Offill will especially love it.

the seepThe Seep by Chana Porter (Soho Press, January 21)

This is a unique look at what happens when humanity get everything they want. It arrives in the form of an alien invasion. When the Seep infects the world population, people stop fighting, they begin caring about others, and taking care of each other. Money no longer has value because everyone shares, and anyone can have any profession they want. People can also have wings, tails, fins, any body modification they choose. And it works for almost everyone. But there is always a danger to getting everything you want.

the lost book of adana moreauThe Lost Book of Adana Moreau: A Novel by Michael Zapata (Hanover Square Press, February 4)

A man in Chicago finds a mysterious manuscript for a science fiction novel while cleaning out his dead grandfather’s attic. He tracks it back to a Dominican immigrant named Adana Moreau who lived decades before in New Orleans. But when he arrives in Louisiana to discuss it with her son, Hurricane Katrina impedes his search for answers.

the illness lessonThe Illness Lesson: A Novel by Clare Beams (Doubleday, February 11)

Samuel Hood and his daughter Caroline run a groundbreaking new school for young women in 19th century New England. When a flock of red birds arrives on school grounds, one by one, the young women begin to exhibit strange signs of illness. Caroline must figure out how to push back against her father and his decision not to notify the girls’ parents about the events at the school, even as she also falls ill.

shuggie bainShuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Grove Press, February 11)

This is a beautiful, heartwrenching look at the love between a mother and child. Set in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s, it’s about a boy named Shuggie and his family, who struggle to keep food on their table as his mother sinks further into chemical dependancy.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead Books, February 18)

One of the year’s most highly anticipated debuts, Taylor’s first novel is about past wounds, fresh intimacies, and the unknowability of other people, as readers follow a young man from Alabama living in a Midwestern university town as he works to get a biochem degree.

These Ghosts Are FamilyThese Ghosts Are Family: A Novel by Maisy Card (Simon & Schuster, March 3)

As Stanford Solomon comes to the end of his life, he reveals a bombshell: His name is actually Abel Paisley, and three decades earlier he faked his death and started a new life with a stolen identity. These Ghosts are Family is about the consequences of his actions and how they affected the family he left behind.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel by Kawai Strong Washburn (MCD, March 3)

When 7-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard into shark-infested waters while on vacation in Hawaii, everyone fears the worst. But when the sharks deliver him safely back to the boat, it is seen as a a sign of favor from ancient Hawaiian gods that will change the direction of their lives.

Docile by K.M. Szpara (, March 3)

A hard-hitting science fiction debut about a future where people’s bodies are rented out as Dociles to pay off their parents’ debts and ensure their children’s futures. Alex’s mother never recovered from her Dociline, so when Alex is contracted out, he refuses to participate. But his contract is held by none other than the heir of the family who created the Docile debt erasure empire, and he is determined to make Alex take part in their work.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 10)

A young woman tasked with safeguarding a natural history museum collection during WWII discovers her new home at Lockwood Manor is a lot more thrilling and dangerous than she expected.

New Waves: A Novel by Kevin Nguyen (One World, March 10)

Margo and Lucas are fed up with their jobs at a tech firm and decide to steal data. When Margo dies in an accident, Lucas begins sifting through her computer to try and figure out if it really was an accident, and discovers he didn’t know as much about her as he thought. New Waves is a relevant discussion of racism, grief, and our digital footprints.

The Return by Rachel Harrison (Berkley, March 24)

The Return is about four best friends from college, and what happens when one disappears for two years, then shows up again with no memory of what happened. To celebrate her not being dead, they plan a weekend trip in upstate New York. WHOOOOOOO, are they going to regret that. This book so is fantastic and SCARY!

Godshot coverGodshot: A Novel by Chelsea Bieker (Catapult, April 7)

An electrifying novel about mothers and daughters, Godshot is about 14-year-old Lacey and her mother as they struggle to get by in drought-stricken California. They are involved in a religious cult whose leader promises to bring the rains back. But when Lacey is abandoned by her mother, she gives up everything and must confront her fears in order to find her.

The Last Summer of Ada Bloom by Martine Murray (Tin House Books, April 7)

Over the course of one hot summer, the Bloom family begins to come apart. Ada’s mother reunites with an old flame; her father is upset by the increasing distance in his marriage; her older teenage siblings are off exploring the world; and Ada has discovered a dangerous secret beneath an old windmill.

The Unsuitable cover imageThe Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig (Henry Holt, April 14)

Iseult’s mother died giving birth to her, but she hasn’t left Iseult’s life completely: she lives in a scar on Iseult’s neck and talks to her. Iseult has always found her mother’s presence a comfort, but now Iseult wants to be independent. Her father’s attempts to marry her off have been unsuccessful, partly because Iseult likes to tell guests about her neck-mother. The Unsuitable is a fiercely feminist Gothic novel of manners and body horror, that portrays spinsterhood, self-image, and mental illness in Victorian times in fresh light.

If I Had Your Face: A Novel by Frances Cha (Ballantine Books, April 21)

Four friends in contemporary Seoul, Korea, deal with unrealistic beauty standards, relationships, debt, despair, and hope, as they try their best to survive in today’s image-driven world.

The Down Days: A Novel by Ilze Hugo (Skybound Books, May 5)

A community in a city in Africa struggles to deal with circumstances after they are quarantined following an outbreak of a deadly laughing epidemic. Perfect for fans of The Book of M, The Dreamers, Wanderers, and other novels with unusual plagues.

Catherine House: A Novel by Elisabeth Thomas (Custom House, May 12)

Fans of The Secret History will be intrigued by this novel about a group of rebellious students at a prestigious school. Admittance to the school is very hard to gain. Students are expected to give up their lives before school, in return for a top notch education.

all my mother's loversAll My Mother’s Lovers: A Novel by Ilana Masad (Dutton, May 26)

Hooray for former Rioter Ilana! Her highly anticipated debut novel is about a woman named Maggie who returns home after the death of her mother. While going through her things, she discovers five envelopes addressed to strangers. Maggie embarks on a road trip to deliver the letters and learn about her mother’s secrets.

The Son of Good Fortune: A Novel by Lysley Tenorio (Ecco, July 7)

Excel is an undocumented Filipino immigrant with a larger-than-life con artist mother. He spends his days working at a spy-themed pizza parlor and hanging out with his girlfriend, Sab. When Sab goes on a road trip, Excel sees it as a chance to start writing his own story and to forge a new path for himself.