Best fiction I read in 2021

Quick reviews of the best fiction I read (for the first time) this year. I re-read a handful of all-time favorites (Lolita, Madame Bovary, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, and Ada, or Ardor) in 2021, which felt like a comforting choice during a never-ending pandemic, but I have not included them in this list, as they are all #1 picks. Without further ado!

1. No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood

“Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.”

Patricia Lockwood descends into “the portal,” the life we all live online, and emerges with flashes of brilliant insight, humor, and pathos. The novel is structured in a very piecemeal, Lydia Davis-y style, which also seems appropriate for the subject matter, and it takes a surprisingly emotional turn in the second half, which I felt unprepared for. (I actually cried toward the end of the book, which I rarely do with any novels, and which I surely did not expect this book to make me do, given the jovial, self-deprecating tenor and content of its first half.) I wanted to read more from her after becoming obsessed with her essay in the London Review of Books about Elena Ferrante, and this curiously moving little book did not disappoint my high expectations.

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2. Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen

It’s uncool to like Jonathan Franzen, but gosh, guys, he is really great. This novel is a perfect example of his skill at interpersonal insights and all the drama that goes on in the minds of family members. Here, toward the waning years of the Vietnam War, an American pastor’s family is coming apart at the seams. Franzen, while not claiming Christianity for himself, writes with sensitivity and clarity about the Jesus Movement and how people of faith might have navigated it during this tumultuous decade. Riveting and heart-wrenching at times.

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3. Stoner, John Williams

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The clean plainness of John Williams’s prose befits his protagonist: William Stoner, a featureless farm boy who slides into a role as an English professor at the University of Missouri. We follow his quiet, largely uneventful life as a teacher in the early half of the 20th century, and Williams presents to us a character we come to admire and yet expect nothing from. It is a fascinatingly quiet novel and yet it accomplishes a great deal. As a whole, it brings to mind the beautiful closing paragraph of Middlemarch, thinking of people, like Stoner, “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

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4. The Abyss, Marguerite Yourcenar

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Having recently finished Diarmaid MacCulloch’s enormous history The Reformation, I felt well-prepared for this thorough novel about the risks of being an intellectual dissident during the Reformation. The great Marguerite Yourcenar never disappoints. Her far-ranging imagination and depth of historical insight is astonishing, and her prose (here translated by Grace Frick, her lifelong partner, who also translated the peerless Memoirs of Hadrian) is gorgeous without being stuffy. The Abyss is a novel about Zeno, a physician and alchemist making his way through the heady, deadly period of the Reformation in and around Flanders. For his atheism and for his scientific practice, he is perpetually under suspicion of heresy wherever he lives, and he meets and saves many different people (mostly men) throughout the course of the book. His philosophical dialogues with the Prior are particularly enjoyable; Yourcenar renders the contrast between the former’s great doubt and the latter’s great faith with sensitivity and warmth. (For what it’s worth, Zeno is also a very archetypal, classic portrait of an iconoclastic 5, for those who ascribe to the enneagram.) It’s a dense, impressive work of historical fiction; a welcome escape during pandemic winter.

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5. All for Nothing, Walter Kempowski

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An episodic, humane, unusual novel, set in East Prussia in 1945, as the Red Army is advancing and forcing the migration of thousands of refugees. In a ramshackle estate, a woman lives with her 12-year-old son and a number of attendants, and they all play host to an array of wandering strangers, including a drifting painter, a Nazi violinist, and a Jewish refugee, before they themselves have to take to the road, and the horrors of war become increasingly personal. Walter Kempowski published this, his last novel, in 2006, and in it, reveals a sensitive and yet unflinching portrayal of Germans at home, the ones trying to determine whether they had enough ration coupons, if their husbands and sons were still alive at the front, what their neighbors were doing, and what the point of living was, after all. Kempowski writes plainly, with skill, and does not embellish or romanticize. His characters all have rather flat affect, which creates an unusual effect when they are faced with such horrors. Remarkable novel; a memorable achievement in historical fiction.

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6. The Morning Star, Karl Ove Knausgaard

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Oh, Karl Ove! Look at you, writing about people who aren’t yourself (although I suspect there are a few strong resemblances here)! Through a chorus of characters, this unexpectedly creepy novel meditates on death and how we might all reckon with a quiet, spooky apocalypse. I did not expect to be so riveted. I wanted it to end with a bang, not a whimper, however, and the conclusion left me feeling a bit disappointed.

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7. Second Place, Rachel Cusk

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Gloomy introspective novel by Rachel Cusk; unmistakably by Rachel Cusk. Who else could write such a deeply sad, deeply conscious, deeply strange novel? I’m still not entirely convinced that I really love her, but I keep coming slowly back to her writing, often failing to resist her witchy magnetism. Some segments of this felt very Woolfian to me, which is perhaps why I kept going even when the first 40 pages failed to capture much of my interest. I picked up enthusiasm as the novel wore on (once L and Brett arrived).

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8. Heat Wave, Penelope Lively

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Penelope Lively is so good at what she does, and I get the sense that she is sadly under-read. In Heat Wave, a middle-aged copy editor named Pauline takes up a summer residence in a ramshackle cottage with her daughter, Teresa, and her daughter’s family: husband, Maurice, a writer, and infant son, Luke. In Lively’s skillful hands, a story in which little happens becomes rich with internal drama, past reflections on former lives (and lives that could have been), and a fair dose of heartache. Thrillingly quick and a pleasure from start to finish.

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9. Passing On, Penelope Lively

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As may be evident by now, I’m always in the mood for a Penelope Lively novel. She’s so delightfully English and introspective. Her particular affection for middle-aged people is compelling, too.

(Buy)

10. Last Night: Stories, James Salter

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It’s such an unpopular, unfashionable opinion, but wow, I love these old white male novelists, with their casual, upper-class sexism and narrow field of vision. They’re so charming, and Salter is a real stylist. This collection bears some resemblance to Cheever stories, but the stories lack Cheever’s characteristic depth. The last story (the titular story) is the best one, I think.

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Honorable mentions

  1. Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami
  2. Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell

Like the flukes

Things I have taken up lately, for general happiness

  • Reading while walking
  • Darjeeling tea
  • Not reading the news
  • Not looking at Twitter for more than 60 seconds
  • The Curly Girl Method, inspired by my mother

It’s been a very slow year for me with my calligraphy business, somewhat intentionally, and I’ve been really happy about it. It is a nice thing: To come home after working for eight hours and not have another two hours or more of work every night.

“The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?” — James Salter, Light Years

End of October
Pyrrha, creeping.

Sweet, sad Pyrrha, my older dog, has been in a lot of pain lately, and it’s incredible to me how much this has affected my well-being. I feel this pit of dread in my stomach when I think of her, whenever I hear her whine, whenever I let her out in the morning or look over and see her ears pinned back to her head. (It’s probably her hips, which is almost an inevitable ailment with German shepherds, but I’ll take her to the vet next week for a more in-depth assessment.) Just today, I was trying to tell Guion I was worried about her while pumping gas, on our way to work, and these fat tears were rolling down my face. Ugh. She’ll be OK. It’s me that might not be. Emotions! Hate them.

10 Best Fiction Books I Read in 2014

And again, I have to say that this was a very difficult, painful list to make. It seemed cruel, not to rank everything in the top 10 for this past year. But I have made my choices. And I stand by them.

1. The Stories of Paul Bowles

The Stories of Paul Bowles

How do you talk about something that left you consistently gasping for air? I was introduced to Paul Bowles in 2011 with his novel The Sheltering Sky (which ranked on my Top 10 list for that year). For all his brilliance, he is under-read and gravely underappreciated; when I found this copy of his stories at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and proceeded to devour it with unflagging fervor. It’s a thick, dazzling, astonishing collection of stories about human nature, particularly its darker and weirder representatives. Many stories involve Morocco, where Bowles lived for most of his adult life. Most, if not all, stories hinge on a complicated, compelling character, perfectly animated by Bowles’s vivid, incisive prose. And all of the stories will render you a bit breathless.

2. Alexis, Marguerite Yourcenar

Alexis

Marguerite Yourcenar is the heavy-hitter that hardly anyone talks about. She was a total genius (first woman to be inducted into the Académie française), and I think it’s criminal that we aren’t talking about her all of the time. This unbelievable little novel, for instance, was her first. She wrote it when she was a mere 24 years old, in 1928 (published in 1929). And this is Alexis: A confessional letter from a gay man to his ex-wife, about his childhood, internal struggles, hopes, and fraught ambitions. And it is so gorgeous and riveting. I can’t get over it. There are shades of Proust here too (the insightful inner examinations of a frequently ill, shy gay man who is extremely intelligent), but the short of it is that Alexis is incredible and worth every minute.

3. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire

This is the second time I’ve read Pale Fire, but it’s so good that it would be a crime not to rank it so highly in this roundup. I read it again for church book club (promoted to the list because of my gushing recommendation), and everyone hated it because the narrator was “creepy” and “unlikable.” I felt like all I could say was, “Well, naturally. But that’s entirely, utterly missing everything. Just everything.” (I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.) The novel is deliriously funny and wickedly sincere and plays tricks on you from the beginning to the end. Here we have a delusional professor (or is he?), a masterful poem, a fake Slavic kingdom, a murder mystery, an allusive treasure trove. You cannot ask for much more, but if you did, Nabokov would give it to you on a silver platter.

4. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy

The Forsyte Saga

I decided to read the enormous Forsyte Saga because a visiting preacher raved about it, noting how underappreciated Galsworthy is, and structured his sermon around the novel’s story of grace and redemption.* John Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, primarily for this book. The Nobel committee usually gives the prize for a lifetime of work, but in their decision, they specifically noted that Galsworthy deserved the prize “for his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga.”

Well said, committee, and I agree with your judgment. Accordingly, I’m fascinated by the fact that hardly anyone has read this book. Or by the fact that no one really talks about it. One factor could be the length (my edition topped out around 960 pages). Yes, it’s not as brilliant as Tolstoy, who can write 960 pages and never be accused of having taken excessive liberties, but The Forsyte Saga is brilliant by degrees and should be read much more than it is.

I love sprawling family dramas, and the Forsytes are an excellent subject. All of the familiar themes of the English upper class are here — money! Class! Preventing unsavory marriages! Gossip! Hating on the less fortunate! Art! Wit! — but Galsworthy presents them with a fresh, engaging, and sometimes unpredictable style.

As Galsworthy intended, Soames Forsyte is particularly fascinating. Soames is deeply unlikable to everyone who knows him, even (especially?) to his own family. As readers, we follow him quite closely and receive his inner monologues with regularity, and we have no good reason to like him either. So Soames is such an interesting and therefore perfect choice for a complex, distasteful protagonist.

All in all, this is a splendidly written novel. There are some moments of real beauty here. And enough interludes to make you pause, lift your head, and think deeply about your own extended family.

*Upon finishing the novel, I realized that the visiting preacher just watched the BBC miniseries version and didn’t actually read the book, because the miniseries deviates grossly from the text and fabricates an entirely new ending. Shock! Brief indignation! But. I’m still obviously very glad I read it. So, no harm done.

5. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

2014 is the year I discovered Lydia Davis and had my life subsequently changed by her. In my reading life, the mark of a very special book is one that forces me to slow down and savor every line. I’m usually speeding through books at a voracious (if often uncomprehending) pace, but not so with this collection, which includes all of the stories from Break It Down (1986) to her penultimate collection, Varieties of Disturbance (2007). As I’ve mentioned before, something about Lydia Davis sticks with me, long after I’ve read the last little story, and echoes in my mind throughout my day. She isn’t easily forgotten, and I love her for that. If you need someone to shake you by the shoulders and tell you to READ LYDIA DAVIS, give me a ring. I’ll come over.

6. Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis

Can't and Won't: Stories

I wasn’t kidding. 2014 was the Year of Lydia Davis. This is her most recent collection, and it’s highly recommended to anyone who has eyes capable of interpreting text.

Here is the titular story, in is entirety:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

7. Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow

Henderson the Rain King

“Hell, we’ll never get away from rhythm, Romilayu. I wish my dead days would quit bothering me and leave me alone. The bad stuff keeps coming back, and it’s the worst rhythm there is. The repetition of a man’s bad self, that’s the worst suffering that’s ever been known.”

I wasn’t sure about Saul Bellow, but Henderson convinced me completely of his brilliance.

Henderson is the perfect narrator: flawed, humorous, fascinating. His continual refrain — “I want, I want, I want” — rings throughout the book and echoes a bit in all of us as we read his story. It’s a quest, an archetypal journey of rebirth, and at the same time, a journey into the darkest part of the self: the hidden psychosis that lurks beneath the surface.

8. Light Years, James Salter

Light Years

What can you do with prose like this except bow down?

The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

This is a novel about a dreamily disintegrating marriage. It sounds odd to say that a marriage could fall apart in a “dreamy” way, but this is an odd novel, and I think that’s exactly what happened here. Viri and Nedra live in the countryside outside of New York City with their daughters, Franca and Danny, and they might all love each other. Or they might not. Salter’s style is lush and impressionistic and everyone seems very beautiful and very confused but not quite devastated. There are no dramatic scenes; everything happens quietly. There is a pony in the grass at dawn; light reflected off wine goblets; half-finished art projects on the kitchen table; loose conversations with quasi-intellectuals at night; oblique moments of love-making. I was completely entranced by this book, mainly because of Salter’s gorgeous prose, but even now, I’m not entirely sure what to say about it. Except that it was lovely and strange.

9. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah

Three-quarters through Americanah, a character says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.”

And yet I think that is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has accomplished with this book. This is a large, beautiful novel with engaging, complex characters. Adichie is constantly reminding the reader of the promises and pitfalls embedded in the American cultural landscape — pitfalls especially if you happen to be black.

Ifemelu moves from Nigeria to the United States to pursue a university education and hopefully, better job prospects. The novel moves back and forth between Ifemelu’s past (girlhood in Nigeria to young adulthood in the United States) and present, as she prepares to return home to Nigeria — for good.

Even though I am a white, non-immigrant, US-born citizen, I never felt boxed out or uninvited to the conversation that is going on in Americanah. The characters are accessible, complicated, delightfully human; they held my rapt attention throughout this large and yet swift-moving novel.

Through the medium of Ifemelu’s blog about being a non-American black in America, Adichie expresses cogent, relevant arguments about the complexities of racism in America, exposing just how little progress we’ve made, even when we pat ourselves on the back for our sense of having overcome, for achieving civil rights, for electing a black man president, for parroting the line that white conservatives enjoy, that “racism is over.” It’s far, far from over. Americanah is that strong — and readable and compelling — reminder: Racism, unfortunately, is alive and well in America. So, round of applause for Adichie, for teaching us something about ourselves that we are always unwilling to learn.

10. The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

It is rare to find a book like this: a thriller — an adventure novel, in a sense — that also happens to be extremely well written. It’s a story of murder and intrigue — salted with delicious dark humor — in North Korea, where Adam Johnson actually spent some time working and doing research for this novel, which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Recommended for its energy, precision, and probing action.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
  2. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  3. Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks
  4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace
  5. A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, Virginia Woolf
  6. The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
  7. The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
  8. What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, Nathan Englander
  9. Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner
  10. Fools, Joan Silber
  11. Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins
  12. Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  14. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
  15. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  16. Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  17. Out, Natsuo Kirino
  18. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

What were your favorite novels you read in 2014?

Previously…
Top 10 Poetry Books I Read in 2014
Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014