Y’all know I struggle with literary fiction, but one of my goals for 2020 is to read some more ~literary~ books. What do I mean by literary? I think the connotations of “literary” usually indicate well-written or experimental prose and a somewhat serious narrative dealing with serious, realistic topics. Or something to that effect. Not all the books on this list are hardcore literary; many, in fact, fall into that nebulous category of “upmarket” fiction – which is, as I understand it, literary fiction with a more commercial appeal. I think it’s a good mix!
Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
I’ve been meaning to read this one for years; I really enjoy novels about cultural differences, particularly ones that portray the United States as foreign, and of course this novel is super popular and super bestelling; talk about commercial appeal! I think it’s a good one to get started with, since it’s likely to be very accessible.
When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James’s life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. Catherine, grateful to James and worried for him, desperately wants to help — but as time moves on, and as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. When crisis hits, Catherine finds herself at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, leading her to jeopardize all she holds dear.
I’ve heard good things about this one, and the summary intrigues me!
Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth. As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her.
This has been called the black Bridget Jones or something like that, though I’ve heard that’s not really an accurate description. I think this book comes closest on this list to being more commercial than necessarily literary (is it women’s fiction, maybe?). Everyone has been talking about it.
Stay With Me
Yejide and Akin have been married since they met and fell in love at university. Though many expected Akin to take several wives, he and Yejide have always agreed: polygamy is not for them. But four years into their marriage–after consulting fertility doctors and healers, trying strange teas and unlikely cures–Yejide is still not pregnant. She assumes she still has time–until her family arrives on her doorstep with a young woman they introduce as Akin’s second wife. Furious, shocked, and livid with jealousy, Yejide knows the only way to save her marriage is to get pregnant, which, finally, she does–but at a cost far greater than she could have dared to imagine.
I’ve heard it has gorgeous writing and somewhat of a mystery/twist ending type of thing? It’s been recommended to me multiple times, and I’m so intrigued by this summary.
An American Marriage
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined.
I mean. Who hasn’t read this book. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone dislike it, and it won the…Women’s Prize, I think it was? Really, really need to get on this!
At first glance, the quirky, overworked narrator [of this] novel seems to be on the cusp of a perfect life: she is studying for a prestigious PhD in chemistry that will make her Chinese parents proud (or at least satisfied), and her successful, supportive boyfriend has just proposed to her. But instead of feeling hopeful, she is wracked with ambivalence: the long demanding hours at the lab have created an exquisite pressure cooker, and she doesn’t know how to answer the marriage question. When is all becomes too much and her life plan veers off course, she finds herself on a new path of discoveries about everything she thought she knew.
Again, I really enjoy novels about cultural differences and the experiences of third-culture kids (like me!), and this is such a short novel that I’m hoping I will enjoy it.
What Red Was
When Kate Quaile meets Max Rippon in the first week of university, a life-changing friendship begins. Over the next four years, the two become inseparable. For him, she breaks her solitude; for her, he leaves his busy circles behind. But knowing Max means knowing his family: the wealthy Rippons, all generosity, social ease, and quiet repression. Theirs is a very different world from Kate’s own upbringing, and yet she finds herself quickly drawn into their gilded lives, and the secrets that lie beneath. Until one evening, at the Rippons home, just after graduation, her life is shattered apart in a bedroom while a party goes on downstairs.
I’ve heard mixed things, but the summary is so compelling.
Marriage of a Thousand Lies
Lucky and her husband, Krishna, are gay. They present an illusion of marital bliss to their conservative Sri Lankan–American families, while each dates on the side. It’s not ideal, but for Lucky, it seems to be working. She goes out dancing, she drinks a bit, she makes ends meet by doing digital art on commission. But when Lucky’s grandmother has a nasty fall, Lucky returns to her childhood home and unexpectedly reconnects with her former best friend and first lover, Nisha, who is preparing for her own arranged wedding with a man she’s never met. As the connection between the two women is rekindled, Lucky tries to save Nisha from entering a marriage based on a lie. But does Nisha really want to be saved? And after a decade’s worth of lying, can Lucky break free of her own circumstances and build a new life? Is she willing to walk away from all that she values about her parents and community to live in a new truth?
This sounds so good, and like it will hit super close to home.
A Woman Is No Man
In Brooklyn, eighteen-year-old Deya is starting to meet with suitors. Though she doesn’t want to get married, her grandparents give her no choice. History is repeating itself: Deya’s mother, Isra, also had no choice when she left Palestine as a teenager to marry Adam. Though Deya was raised to believe her parents died in a car accident, a secret note from a mysterious, yet familiar-looking woman makes Deya question everything she was told about her past. As the narrative alternates between the lives of Deya and Isra, she begins to understand the dark, complex secrets behind her community.
It’s so rare that I find books written by Arab-American women that I have to pick up any I encounter! I’ve already checked this out of the library; that’s how eager I am to read it.
Promising Young Women
On the day of her 26th birthday, Jane is recently single, adrift at her job, and intrigued by why Clem – her much older, married boss – is singing to her. Meanwhile her alter-ego, the online agony aunt Jolly Politely, has all the answers. She’s provided thousands of strangers with insightful and occasionally cutting insights to contemporary life’s most vexing questions. When she and Clem kiss at a party, Jane does not follow the advice she would give to her readers as Jolly: instead she plunges head-first into an affair. One that could jeopardise her friendships, her career and even her life.
I mean, sounds like middle-class white woman drama, but the kind that you can’t look away from. I feel like I’ve seen this book talked about? The cover is very familiar.
This is almost a love story. But it’s not as simple as that.
Ellis and Michael are twelve-year-old boys when they first become friends, and for a long time it is just the two of them, cycling the streets of Oxford, teaching themselves how to swim, discovering poetry, and dodging the fists of overbearing fathers. And then one day this closest of friendships grows into something more. But then we fast forward a decade or so, to find that Ellis is married to Annie, and Michael is nowhere in sight. Which leads to the question, what happened in the years between?
Rachel has been telling me to read this book for years, and I’m going to try my best to actually make that happen this year! It is supposed to be: beautifully written and heartbreaking, with a central mystery that makes it compulsively readable.
The dictionary doesn’t contain every word. Gretel, a lexicographer by trade, knows this better than most. She grew up on a houseboat with her mother, wandering the canals of Oxford and speaking a private language of their own invention. Her mother disappeared when Gretel was a teen, abandoning her to foster care, and Gretel has tried to move on, spending her days updating dictionary entries. One phone call from her mother is all it takes for the past to come rushing back. To find her, Gretel will have to recover buried memories of her final, fateful winter on the canals. A runaway boy had found community and shelter with them, and all three were haunted by their past and stalked by an ominous creature lurking in the canal: the bonak. Everything and nothing at once, the bonak was Gretel’s name for the thing she feared most. And now that she’s searching for her mother, she’ll have to face it.
Another hyped book that was shortlisted for various prizes; this one is a retelling of the Oedipus myth. Given that a retelling of Antigone, Home Fire, was one of my favorite books of 2018, I’m eager to read another literary retelling of a Greek tale! And all of the ~literary~ readers I know have loved it.
Convenience Store Woman
Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?
I sometimes struggle with translated works, but this one seems to be universally adored, and the premise is so intriguing. Plus it’s short, so if I hate it I won’t suffer for long.
Self-Portrait With Boy
Lu Rile is a relentlessly focused young photographer struggling to make ends meet. Working three jobs, responsible for her aging father, and worrying that the crumbling warehouse she lives in is being sold to developers, she is at a point of desperation. One day, in the background of a self-portrait, Lu accidentally captures on film a boy falling past her window to his death. The photograph turns out to be startlingly gorgeous, the best work of art she’s ever made. It’s an image that could change her life…if she lets it. But the decision to show the photograph is not easy. The boy is her neighbors’ son, and the tragedy brings all the building’s residents together. It especially unites Lu with his beautiful grieving mother, Kate. As the two forge an intense bond based on sympathy, loneliness, and budding attraction, Lu feels increasingly unsettled and guilty, torn between equally fierce desires: to use the photograph to advance her career, and to protect a woman she has come to love.
I mainly want to read this because Rachel loved it so much, but also the central conflict here sounds very compelling. Plus I read the first line and liked it, so.
In the Eye of the Sun
Set amidst the turmoil of contemporary Middle Eastern politics, this vivid and highly-acclaimed novel by an Egyptian journalist is an intimate look into the lives of Arab women today. Here, a woman who grows up among the Egyptian elite, marries a Westernized husband, and, while pursuing graduate study, becomes embroiled in a love affair with an uncouth Englishman.
This is supposed to be a classic of Egyptian fiction, though it was originally written in English, I believe, as the author earned her PhD in England. Because the author herself lived in England and married an Englishman, I think that she’s pulled a lot from her own life, which should make for a rich read. My Egyptian-American friends who have read it have all adored it, so I’ve had it on my list for a long time, as it’s exactly the type of fiction that, if I ever wrote a literary novel myself, I would hope to emulate. It’s just. So. Long. It’s like 700 pages. That’s just…a lot for a literary novel, especially one that seems to be structured as a coming-of-age story, my least favorite kind. But I want to try.
There’s some other books I’m planning on reading that I haven’t included, and that’s because I’ve already spoken about them on my most anticipated list, but the overall number should not be more than 20, which I think is doable and managable for a whole year! I am under no illusions that I will actually read all of these books or even finish them (initially, The Idiot was on this list, but I DNF’d it earlier this month, oops), but I’m really excited to at least try all these different writing styles.
4 thoughts on “15 Literary Fiction Books to Read in 2020”
What an exciting list! So many of these are on my TBR as well; I’m REALLY hoping to finally get around to Chemistry, A Woman is No Man, What Red Was, and Convenience Store Woman this year, in particular! I can vouch for Everything Under, one of my favorite reads of the year in 2018, and I really liked An American Marriage, with a couple of criticisms.
I hope you’ll love all of these titles!
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I LOVE THIS LIST. Of the 8 I’ve read I solidly liked 7 (the exception being An American Marriage which… was a very generous 3 stars from me). I really want to read Stay With Me this year too. Also if you come to VT at any point I can lend you like half this list, lol 😎
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haha I KNEW YOU WOULD. Our reading so rarely overlaps!
I miss VT SO MUCH, perhaps sometime in late Spring I can come up!!
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Patrick is probably gonna visit in May if you wanna coordinate!!
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