Fascinating Memoirs That Read Like Novels

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Michelle Regalado

Staff Writer

Michelle Regalado is a New York-based digital writer and editor. When she's not hunting down her next must-read book (recommendations are welcome!) or writing about all things pop culture, you can probably find her drinking iced coffee and hanging out with her dog, Lola. Follow her on Twitter: @mar8289

If you love fiction, switching gears and picking up a nonfiction book can be kind of intimidating. Plus, chances are you already have a stacked fiction TBR list, so how can you possibly get to all of those and experiment with a whole other genre? But, as I’ve realized in recent years, skipping out on nonfiction altogether also means missing out on some truly incredible stories  — like the ones chronicled in these five picks. 

From uncovering devastating family secrets to chronicling the hunt for a serial killer, the premises of these memoirs are as engaging and compulsively readable as that of any fiction novel. So if you’re a fiction loyalist looking to try something new (or just looking for your next great read), check out one of these fascinating nonfiction options. 

inheritance dani shapiroInheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

Whether or not you read Dani Shapiro’s past memoirs (she’s written three before this latest one), it’s definitely worth picking up her most recent work, “Inheritance.” The book details how a genealogy test leads Shapiro to uncover a staggering family secret. The bombshell forces her to confront universal questions about family and identity. It also leads her on a quest of discovery that, though it really transpired, unfolds like a mystery novel. As Shapiro deftly navigates the emotional story of her own origins, she also spins her grief, shock, and introspection into a compelling narrative that you won’t be able to put down. 

Educated Tara Westover CoverEducated by Tara Westover

Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover grew up isolated from the mainstream world. She didn’t attend traditional school until she was 17. It was only after her brother gained admittance to college that Westover realized she could pave a different path for herself as well. So she did just that, leaving her family to pursue a formal education that continued all the way through a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. The story is just as remarkable as it sounds, and it serves as a stunning reminder of how the limitations of the environment you grew up in can both form you and fuel you. 

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung - Book RiotAll You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

After her Korean parents placed her for adoption, Nicole Chung was raised by a white family in Oregon. As a child, she heard that her biological parents gave her up to give her a better life. But as she grew up and began learning how to navigate her life as an Asian-American woman, she decides to uncover the whole truth. Chung’s account of her search for her birth parents is profound and, at times, heartbreaking. But as personal as her story is, it’s also a breathtakingly honest meditation on identity, family, and race in America.  

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Don’t be fooled by the title: Hope Jahren’s memoir does chronicle her journey into becoming a scientist— starting with playing in the labs of her father’s classrooms to becoming a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii —  but you don’t need to know anything or even really care about science to enjoy her story. She’s entirely aware that, as she puts it, most people only think about dirt when they’ve dropped something in it. Even so, it’s hard to resist her insightful and funny account of her 20-year career as a woman in science. This debut memoir won’t just keep you hooked, it’ll make you look at the natural world around you differently. 

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara book coverI’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Part memoir, part true crime, this bestseller, published posthumously after Michelle McNamara’s death, traces the path of the Golden State Killer, who committed over 50 sexual assaults and 10 murders throughout California. As focused on the crimes as it is, the book is just as much about McNamara, her life, and the event from her childhood that bore her love of true crime.  

McNamara’s meticulous reporting makes this book a journalistic feat. But her obsessive search to identify the killer also makes it read almost like a mystery thriller— one you’ll want to stay up all night reading.