One of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place. The pre-trip reading of a few titles provides texture to my experience of the destination, and an understanding of some of the more personal stories of those who live (or lived) there.
This post is part of an occasional series where I provide a list of novels or memoirs set in a few of my favourite destinations. In this case, the destination is New York City. As so many great books are set in NYC, I have restricted my list to novels that I have particularly enjoyed.
Novels set in New York City:
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
Hands up who had to read this for English Literature at school? It seems every person I speak to has read The Catcher in the Rye at some point in their life. Narrated by the 16 year old native New Yorker, Holden Caulfield, this classic 1951 novel chronicles the three days after he is expelled from his Pennsylvania prep school and heads to New York City. His wry observations about human nature still have currency today, and his voice is the eternal voice of teenage alienation.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)
This is the original book which inspired the 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn as the free-spirited Holly Golightly. In this novel we catch a glimpse of the 1940s New York society. Holly is the epitome of an ‘it’ girl – chic, stylish and the hostess with the most-est. In her Manhattan apartment she hosts madcap parties with a cast of larger than life characters, but really just wants a place of calm where she feels at home and belongs. The novel’s Holly is a complex character, who can never be bound by convention. It’s a perfectly written novel that held me entranced from beginning to end.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
And if I thought Breakfast at Tiffany’s was great, I practically hyperventilated over the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald on display in this stunning novel. The Great Gatsby captures all the decadence and excess of the Jazz Age in New York City. Through the fate of the main character, self-made millionaire, Jay Gatsby, we see what happens when parts of a society are obsessed with money, greed, and pleasure. His eventual demise becomes a cautionary tale about the American Dream, and given that the Great Depression followed within years of publication, Jay’s demise was eerily prophetic.
There is a scene early on in the novel, where the curtains are billowing at Daisy Buchanan’s house, that I think is one of the most exquisitely written passages of any novel. Plus, of course, this novel was recently turned in a visually spectacular movie version by Australian director, Baz Luhrmann.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1921)
Published in 1921, but set in 1870 New York, The Age of Innocence puts upper-class New York society of that time under the microscope. It was a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease”.
The beautiful Countess Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage in Europe, causing ripples in the rigidly conventional New York society. Her young cousin, May Welland is about to become engaged to the eligible young Newland Archer. But, oh no! Newland falls for the older (still married) cousin. Oh dear, what potential for huge scandal… The novel unfolds as Archer struggles to make a decision between establishment duty and passion.
New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherford (2009)
This is one of those epic saga novels, that take two hands to lift up. At over 1,000 pages it’s a hefty tome. In New York Rutherford tells a 400 year tale of New York City in an engrossing fictional narrative which weaves historical fact with a gripping story. Through the intertwined multi-generational stories, he throws light on the economic, cultural, social, and political forces and events that have shaped this city.
The novel begins with a tiny Indian fishing settlement and the Dutch traders who travelled up the Hudson for fur skins, and (apparently) ends up with the city we know today. I say apparently, because despite three separate attempts at it, I still haven’t quite finished this novel. It’s top of my TBR pile to complete over summer. But I love what I’ve read so far. It offers an easy to read and digest survey of the chronological history of this mighty city.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)
This is one of my all-time favourite books. It’s a quirky novel, written in a seemingly disjointed way from multiple characters’ points-of-view, at different times, and in a variety of styles. Heck, there’s even an entire chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation. Quirky, but so incredibly clever. The over-riding themes are ones of memory and passing time, and the inter-connected stories and characters are all ultimately linked to the New York music industry in the second half of the 20th century. Throughout the novel, music is almost a character itself.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
I don’t think it’s possible to visit New York City without gaining some understanding of the effect of the events of 9/11 on the psyche of the city. In this novel, Jonathon Safran Foer tells a story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell whose father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre. The precocious (and somewhat unusual) Oskar discovers a key in a vase in his father’s closet, a couple of years after he has died, and sets out to solve the mystery of which of New York’s locks it will open. This is a poignant book which really got me in the guts.
In an interview about the novel with Joshua Wolf Shenk on MotherJones.com, Safran Foer is asked whether he feels it is risky to write about 9/11 and he says, “If you’re in my position—a New Yorker who felt the event very deeply and a writer who wants to write about things he feels deeply about—I think it’s risky to avoid what’s right in front of you”.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009)
Let the Great World Spin starts as people on the streets of lower Manhattan stand, watching in shock as a mysterious man walks, dances, runs and leaps on a tightrope strung high above the ground between the newly built Twin Towers. It is 1974 New York, and as the story unfolds we meet and are drawn into the lives of many ordinary New Yorkers, all linked by this event. This novel paints a rich description of New York City in the 1970s and captures the transitional nature of American society at that time.
(The tightwalk aspect of this novel was inspired by true-life events which are documented by Philippe Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds. In this book, Philippe Petit recounts the day in 1974 when he illegally walked across a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre.)
Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell (1996)
It’s now 16 years since we first met Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha on the small screen in the HBO TV series which ran for six seasons. What many people don’t realise is that the characters were first launched onto the unsuspecting public through this book. Bushnell began writing her ‘Sex and the City’ stories as a series of columns published in the New York Observer and loosely based the content on her life and those of her friends (as does the character Carrie in the TV series). It is an insiders’ expose of being young, female and single in the late 1990s in New York City.
The Luxe by Anna Godbersen (2007)
The Luxe is actually a young adult novel which Queenie first read, and I then borrowed from her to read myself. I became so enthralled by the story, I immediately tracked down the other three books in the series and bought those too. The story is set in 1899, and focuses on two upper-class Manhattan sisters, one of whom dies after being thrown from a carriage into the Hudson River.
This series of books is like Gossip Girls set at the turn of the 19th Century: beautiful dresses, deception, romantic entanglements, secrets and scandal. It’s the perfect way for teens to unwittingly gain some insight into the history of New York and its social mores of that time.
The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)
This novel follows eight graduates from the exclusive, (at the time, all-female) Vassar College as they commence their adult lives in 1930s Manhattan. You could read this as a companion piece to Sex and The City as it is often said that ‘The Group’ are the original ‘Sex and the City’ women. Through the lives of these women, subjects such as careers, women’s rights, ambition, sex, contraception, motherhood and marriage are explored, and the novel offers a fascinating glimpse of the social history of New York in the 1930s.
Washington Square by Henry James (1880)
This classic novel by Henry James portrays New York in the 1870s. Set in the neighbourhood where James himself was born, this novel tells the deceptively simple story of a plain-looking, young woman, the only child of a rich widower, who is wooed by an unscrupulous fortune-seeker. Through this story, which is set in the 1840s, James illuminates the manners and behaviour of New York society at the time.
As I walked across Washington Square in April this year, I remembered so many aspects of this novel which I had read many years ago.
The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (2002)
Traversing Central Park on my first visit to New York in 2005, I noticed all the children in the playgrounds, being supervised by their nannies. I immediately flashed back to The Nanny Diaries, and I hoped their parents were nicer to their nannies than the X’s were to Nan, the main character in this novel. Nanny is in her early 20s, struggling to graduate from New York University and and to pay her rent when she takes a job caring for the only son of a wealthy Park Avenue family.
Written by two former nannies, The Nanny Diaries lifts the lid on the reality behind the glamour of Manhattan’s wealthy.
What are your favourite books set in New York City?
The links are to versions of each book available at www.bookdepository.com. These are affiliate links.