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.

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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

Best fiction I read in 2015

I read a tremendous amount of five-star fiction this year, and it was a year notable for the number of authors I read for the first time. Without further ado, here are the 10* best books of fiction I read in 2015 (*with a bit of fudging).

1. The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever

[Insert sturdy expletive!] Maybe Cheever is all I have ever wanted in a story. I do not think I will ever be able to get over this. The pitch-perfect prose, wrapped around a bunch of sad, rich, white New Englanders, left me breathless. Yeah, it’s a narrow subject matter, on the whole, but I am incapable of denying his clear genius. Six stars.

2. The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, #3)The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)

Cheating, but I blazed through all four of the Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) this year, and I feel like they can all count as one formidable work. As I have said to many friends, I am at a loss for words when I try to explain the draw of Elena Ferrante’s power and brilliance. I can’t say what she does that is so affecting, but these novels are not to be missed. They appeal to everyone. (Yes, even men. If you can get over yourself/the intentionally bad cover art, you will not regret it.)

3. My Struggle (Books 1 and 2), Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

Another cheat, but I was also seduced by Karl Ove Knausgaard and his sprawling Proustian novel My Struggle this year. It lives up to all the hype. I read books one through three this year, but the first and second were the ones that genuinely moved me.

4. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

As a rule, I am not someone who cries when reading, but I sobbed (I think actually sobbed) a few times while reading this novel. Good grief, Hanya Yanagihara; have mercy on us. This is an extremely dark and extremely moving novel. The characters are rich, complex, and heartbreaking. A Little Life is not for the faint of heart, but it is for all who have suffered, for all who have received (and yet wanted to reject) unconditional love. It’s a beautiful portrait of the love and grace that broken people can to extend to each other despite the horrors of life. Whew. I read all 720 pages in about two days, and upon finishing, I felt like I needed to recover from the death of friends. What a tremendous literary accomplishment.

5. Independent People, Halldór Laxness

Independent People

Where has this book been all my life? Never have I read a novel so beautifully, darkly comic and moving, all at once. Bjartur, a sheep farmer in Iceland, has determined that he will be an independent man, and rely on no one for anything. His singleness of purpose and pride bear out the action of this gorgeously written novel, as his desire for independence drives his family and his farm into despair, starvation, heartbreak, and death. Sounds fun, right? And somehow it is.

The humor is especially surprising. There are these moments of complete absurdity (everyone is talking about worms in the dogs and livestock; ghosts on the heath; the high-minded poetess who pretends to be a friend to the common farmer; trying to tell the neighbors that he found his wife dead, frozen in a pool of blood, after having given birth to a daughter, who is found barely alive under the dog, who is keeping her warm, and instead tells them stories about his sheep and asks them about the weather), and extremely dark humor, and then there’s this lyrical vein that runs through the whole thing. I can’t even begin to say what the quality is, but it’s beautiful. (It also was the perfect literary prelude to our visit to Iceland this past summer.)

6. Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf

Between the Acts

Upon my third reading of this novel, I am happy to say that the pleasures of revisiting Woolf are manifold. Years later, I still feel like I never left this novel. I read it twice in 2009 in preparation for my undergraduate thesis, and then, in 2015, I was happily astonished that it felt so fresh and memorable to me. Rereading Between the Acts felt like visiting an old friend in her garden. My undergrad marginalia in my copy was often embarrassing to reread, but I think these copious, juvenile annotations served to cement a strong recall of the themes and overall emotions of this novel. Mainly, I’ve come away with this impression: Snob as she was, Woolf noticed everybody. And here we notice ourselves in these characters, as at the end of the play, when the (literal) mirrors are held up to the audience, casting a chilling democracy over the crowd. “So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how.”

On a summer evening in the English countryside, a family and their neighborhood friends gather to put on an annual pageant that spans the history of noble Britain. As to be expected with Woolf, a multiplicity of psychological distress simmers under the social surface. Isa is the quiet center of this novel, and we live in her sad, observant mind. As with most Woolf heroines, she is a secretive poet and an unhappy wife and mother, imprisoned by the luxuries of her domestic situation. And yet she is still sympathetic and very human.

This is not her strongest novel, and it’s not the one I’d recommend to newcomers, but it has all the trappings of Woolf’s timeless appeal as a novelist: the incisive characterization, the lush prose, the beautiful meditations, the moments of playfulness.

7. The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower

If 2014 was the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Lydia Davis, I’m going to declare 2015 the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Penelope Fitzgerald. This is only the second novel I’ve read by her, but I am perpetually enchanted by her effortless style, wit, and perfect characterizations. (She also writes children very well, in a very clever, realistic manner. “The Bernhard,” the protagonist’s little brother, was a consistently hilarious character to me. Everything about him is delightful.) I am eagerly looking forward to reading everything else from her (and remain perplexed that she seems to get consistently low numbers of Goodreads stars).

In the lush and dramatic time of Goethe, we meet a young Friedrich “Fritz” von Hardenberg, later known as the German Romantic philosopher/poet Novalis. In the middle of his university education, he meets and falls desperately in love with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kühn, despite the fact that she seems to have not much to recommend herself (except, according to him, being the spitting image of a woodcut of the painter Raphael). His family and friends are appalled. The young genius is so taken in by this very normal kid, who is 10 years his junior, and no one can understand the deep attraction he has for her. Fitzgerald is hilarious to me, throughout her depiction of the sincere and yet puzzling romance. A lovely little novel. It is funny and light and strangely, whimsically profound.

8. In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders

In Persuasion Nation

Brilliant and weird and funny and meticulously executed. This is such a delightful collection. Not as beloved, in my mind, as The Tenth of December, but here we have all of the characteristic blend of quasi-sci-fi American-life criticism, poignant family dramas shown from odd angles, and that biting and somehow wise wit.

9. Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger

Masterful. Claudia Hampton, a brilliant and unorthodox historian, looks back over her life and loves as she dies. I was a touch skeptical at first, by the jumpy perspectives and narration, but Penelope Lively’s unerring control won me over. I was thoroughly charmed by this short, beautiful novel and didn’t want it to end. Easily the best Booker Prize winner I’ve read.

10. Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar

Coup de Grâce

I typically find war novels extremely dull, but in Marguerite Yourcenar’s capable hands, not even a war novel can be tedious. (And, besides, Coup de Grâce is not really a battlefield narrative but rather psychological tension in the midst of wartime.) I think I might love Yourcenar; I don’t think she can do anything wrong. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read, and all three have been flawless.

Erick, the narrator, is a young, emotionally cold Prussian who becomes entangled with Sophie, a beautiful, serious, and tragic young woman. Sophie loves him despite his detached and even unkind nature, which gives the misogynistic Erick plenty to brood and philosophize about while the bombs are falling around them. And, oh, the ending! I won’t say a word about it, but the fact that Yourcenar says this was based on a true story makes it all the more romantically tragic and perfect.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
  2. The Sweet Cheat Gone, Marcel Proust
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  4. Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
  5. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  6. 2666, Roberto Bolaño
  7. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton
  8. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  9. Mating, Norman Rush
  10. The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
  11. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  12. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
  13. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  14. Mislaid, Nell Zink
  15. As We Are Now, May Sarton
  16. Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  17. Victory over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist
  18. Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino
  19. We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver
  20. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories, Alexander Pushkin
  21. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  22. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  23. The Life and Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee
  24. Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

What fiction did you read and enjoy in 2015?

Favorite books from October

The best things I read in October, in no particular order.

The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever. What is wrong with me that I waited so long in my life to read John Cheever? Good grief. These stories wrecked me. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more thrilling and perfect collection of short stories. They stuck with me; I think about them still all the time.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander. This came out a few years ago, but I’d still consider it vital reading for all Americans. It is shocking and grim.

Moon Tiger

Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively. Despite the title and cover, I was thoroughly enchanted by this novel, a multifaceted portrait of a British historian’s life and loves.

2666

2666, Roberto Bolaño. I felt breathless and tired, having finished this emotionally and (literally) physically heavy novel. But also proud. And grateful.

What did you read and enjoy in October?