48 Best Books to Read in 2020


The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Raised in a small, insular Southern town in the 1950s, twins Desiree and Stella Vignes make their escape as soon as they can. Though Desiree eventually returns, Stella settles in Los Angeles, where she passes for white. As both raise daughters in different worlds, Bennett beautifully explores how each sister’s decisions impact herself and her daughter—and how all their lives remain inextricably connected. —AG


Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

If a disaster happens and you can’t read about it on Twitter, does it make a sound? This is the question—one of many—faced by a New York City family that experiences a mysterious cataclysmic event while vacationing in a remote beach community. But while all the tropes of disaster thrillers are present—a knock on the door in the middle of the night, restlessness in the natural environment, cell phone dead zones—the genius of Rumaan Alam’s meticulously observed novel is in his, and the characters’, continued focus on the normal. Leave the World Behind casts us all as disaster preppers, asking which of our quotidian possessions—the cell phone, the grocery list, the Airbnb, the family, the society—will save us. —RET


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Random House


Exactly a decade after releasing The Warmth of Other Suns, her sweeping look at how the Great Migration transformed America, Isabel Wilkerson revolutionizes the way we view race with Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Equal parts history, sociology and narrative, Caste makes the argument that American society is a hierarchal culture with resemblance to the caste systems seen in India and Nazi Germany. Just as gripping as her first study, Wilkerson once again changes the way we understand America. —AG


True Story by Kate Reed Petty

Fans of the formal inventiveness and twisty-turny narratives of Trust Exercise and A Visit From the Goon Squad will be immediately engrossed in this novel about childhood friends pushed apart by the cover-up of a high school assault. Petty, in her debut work, shows an extraordinary mastery of form, using devices as disparate as short horror screenplays, letters, marked-up college essays, and, of course, straight prose to tell a complex and timely story. —R. Eric Thomas


A Burning by Megha Majumdar

This debut novel—so sharp and beautiful it feels anything but—positions Megha Majumdar as a brilliant new talent. Set in India, the novel follows three figures inescapably connected to a violent terrorist attack on a train. Majumdar draws each character with heartbreaking tenderness, her plot moving breathlessly without ever sacrificing feeling. —AG


Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey

This slim volume belies a monumental story of grief and redemption. In 1985, Natasha Trethewey’s mother was murdered by her abusive second ex-husband. In Memorial Drive, the Pulitzer winner and former U.S. poet laureate recounts a loving childhood fractured by her parents’ divorce, the racism embedded in every fragment of life in the Deep South, and her memories of guilt and fear in the years and months leading up to and following her mother’s death. Searing and at times dream-like, Memorial Drive is a masterpiece of memoir, a requiem and document of absolution that sears itself in your memory. —Julie Kosin

Read an Excerpt


The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi’s third novel marks another entry in a remarkable canon that includes Freshwater and Pet. In it, Emezi chronicles the life and death of Vivek Oji, whose search for identity and acceptance will break your heart then rebuild it. Through prose so immediate you feel you’re inside the story, they craft a testament to strength, vulnerability, and love that defies tradition, suggesting a world of empathy society hasn’t quite reached—but could soon. —JK


What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

The master of excavating grief, Sigrid Nunez follows 2018’s aching The Friend with the musings of a woman recruited to help her terminally ill friend die on her own terms. Probing, witty, and oddly gentle, Nunez brings overwhelming comfort and clarity to the darkest recesses of the mind, her careful analysis a beacon illuminating our crumbling reality. —JK


Luster by Raven Leilani

With Luster, Raven Leilani establishes herself as a novelist who perfectly distills millennial culture and the impact of race and class with both wit and compassion. Her central character, the twenty-something New Yorker Edie, is living a life at once highly relatable (her city apartment woes will have you nodding with sad recognition) and genuinely unorthodox (she moves in with the wife and child of the man she’s having a fling with). Leilani’s remarkable first novel is sharp, funny, and transcendent. —AG

Leilani talks Luster


Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots by Morgan Jerkins

Morgan Jerkins, who was raised in New Jersey, traces the roots of her family tree and the way in which the Great Migration shaped the Black experience in Wandering in Strange Lands. Traveling throughout the country, she explores the path her family took as well as her cultural identity as a Black woman. Her desire to understand her personal and cultural origins will inspire you to do the same. —AG

Read an excerpt


The Comeback by Ella Berman

Berkley Books


Ella Berman depicts a harrowing alternate story of the starlet who goes off the deep end. Grace was a child star who eagerly gave up her life to become the muse of a powerful and celebrated director. Like so many real-life actresses mocked for falling into addiction and mental illness, Grace’s life, career and reputation take a disturbing turn as begins to question the Hollywood power dynamics that destroy women’s lives. —AG


Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

A husband eager to escape it all and his reluctant wife leave their Connecticut lives for a yearlong Caribbean voyage with their two children. The husband never returns. In her new novel Sea Wife, Amity Gaige depicts the journey from a dual point of view, interspersing the wife’s recollections of how it all went wrong with diary entries from the husband, both of which cut to the heart of mundane marital strife and the legacy of trauma. —AG


Drifts by Kate Zambreno

Early on in Drifts, Kate Zambreno’s new work of autofiction, the narrator writes to a friend that she wants the book to be “my fantasy of a memoir about nothing.” And it is, in the way that Seinfeld was a show about nothing and everything at the same time. Drifts makes discursive detours into loneliness, female friendship, writer’s block, and professional jealousy; the narrator looks to what she calls “the canon of the bachelor hermits” (Rilke, Kafka, Wittgenstein) for inspiration as she navigates pregnancy and career uncertainty. It’s perfect for this isolated, indeterminate time—like reading a series of rambling postcards from your most erudite friend. –Véronique Hyland


The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

One World


Part memoir, part reckoning, Cornejo Villavicencio exposes the reality of life as an undocumented immigrant in six astounding essays. As she travels across the U.S., surveying and chronicling the experiences of immigrants living in New York, Miami, Cleveland, New Haven, and Flint, Cornejo Villavicencio introduces us to the people who perform some of America’s most essential services while unequivocally destroying the right-wing talking points that villainize the undocumented. For all who consider themselves Americans, The Undocumented Americans is an urgent must-read. —Julie Kosin


Stray by Stephanie Danler

A memoir from the author of the best-selling novel Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler’s Stray chronicles both her tumultuous childhood as the daughter of two addicts and her adult life after releasing the book that made her famous. Upon returning to her California hometown to care for her newly disabled mother, Danler plunges back into the dynamics of her chaotic youth and becomes embroiled in an affair with a married childhood friend. —AG


Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Random House


In her seventh book, Sittenfeld embraces an audacious but simple concept: What would the life of Hillary look like had she never married Bill? While Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which traced the experiences of a very Laura Bush-esque figure, used a similar approach, Rodham goes much further, showing both the successes that Hillary could have achieved on her own and the trail Bill would’ve gone down without her by his side. Though they might be fictional, Sittenfeld’s piercing insights into the psychology of a woman whose feelings we know so little make for a fascinating reading experience. —AG


Camp by L. C. Rosen

You can’t judge a book solely by its cover, but occasionally a really fantastic book will be nestled inside an equally fantastic cover, delighting both eyes and mind. That’s the case with Camp, a YA rom-com that’s as inventive, cute, and glittery as its arts and crafts-centric cover. Randy, a gay high schooler and theater kid, pulls a Sandy from the end of Grease over the school year, changing his look and demeanor to win the attentions of his gay summer camp’s masc jock lothario. In this masterful mix of rom-com hijinks, theater references, queer history, and gender theory, Rosen plays with tropes and expectations in a way that will absolutely delight you. —RET


I Don’t Want to Die Poor: Essays by Michael Arceneaux

Born out of his 2018 New York Times op-ed “The Student Loan Serenity Prayer,” Arceneaux’s essay collection comes as unemployment soars and yet another economic crisis has many young people questioning whether they’ll ever experience life without crushing financial anxiety. I Don’t Want to Die Poor, a brilliant successor to Arceneaux’s 2018 book I Can’t Date Jesusexplores how student loan debt has impacted every facet of the author’s life. The seeming impossibility of finding financial stability while pursuing creative passions will resonate in the hearts of so many. —AG


The Anthill by Julianne Pachico

After years living in England, Lina returns to Colombia, where she spent her childhood years, eager to find the old friend she believes will help unravel the secrets surrounding her mother’s death. He now runs the Anthill, a Medellín youth center that draws Lina in even as she senses darkness. Julianne Pachico’s frank second novel takes a stark look at a traumatized city and the way privilege corrupts. —AG


Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary by Sasha Geffen

In the twentieth century, the question, “Is he musical?” often served as code for, “Is he gay?” explains Sasha Geffen in the intro to Glitter Up the Dark, which explores the many ways in which pop music broke the gender binary (while also acknowledging it was never fully intact). From the castrati of mid-sixteenth century Italy to “Ma” Rainey’s lesbian blues to SoundCloud’s shape-shifting stars, Geffen takes readers on an illuminating journey in lyrical, punkish prose. —Melissa Giannini


My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir

In Francesca Momplaisir’s terrifyingly dark first novel, Lucien leaves Haiti for Queens with his family and settles in a home he calls “My Mother’s House.” As he sinks into depraved evil and torturous violence against women, the house is watching and waiting. Momplaisir’s brutal exploration of the immigrant experience, gender dynamics, and race is masterful and makes for a stunning debut. —AG


All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad

When Maggie Krause’s mother dies, she discovers five letters her mom wrote to mysterious men, and sets out on a road trip to work through her grief and discover the truths behind the missives. There’s a pretty big reveal that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say Maggie learns surprising things about her mom that force her to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about her parents, their marriage, and her own love life. It’s a remarkable debut and the kind of book you want to hug tight when it ends. —Kayla Webley Adler


Pelosi by Molly Ball

Political journalist Ball puts out the most exhaustive bio of the first female Speaker of the House to date, tracking her childhood in a prominent Baltimore political family, her gradual entry into politics as a young mother, and the tenure in Congress that lasted through six presidencies. Seeing her career spread before you is striking, and Ball sheds light on Pelosi’s extreme tenacity, drive, and commitment, with a few surprising details thrown in. —AG


These Women by Ivy Pochoda

Pochoda’s take on L.A. noir is a refreshing and innovative outlier. The young, female victims of a serial killer are the focus of this mystery and the unending sorrow carried by their working class families is put in sharp focus. The women of the title are not just those murdered—they are the witness, the investigating detective, and the grieving mother, whose perspectives are masterfully knit together for a deeply felt narrative of the toll violence takes on a community. —AG


Red Dress in Black and White by Elliot Ackerman

A former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman focuses his novels on the effects of international conflict. Red Dress in Black and White spans a single day in Istanbul in which Catherine, an American with a young son, decides to flee her powerful Turkish husband to return to the States with the American photographer she’s fallen in love with. Her husband is unwilling to lose her and calls in powerful favors that cast a light on the shadowy geopolitical forces at work around the world. At once suspenseful and delicate, Red Dress in Black and White deftly depicts love in a brutal time. —AG 


Self Care by Leigh Stein

The term “self-care” has become so corporately co-opted, it’s largely meaningless. Leigh Stein expertly skewers this and other millennial-embraced clichés in her biting novel of the same name, told through the perspectives of three young women involved with Richual, an online wellness start-up that rings some familiar girl-boss bells. Hitting everything from #MeToo to faux-wokeness, it’s a novel of manners for our 280-character era. —VH


Weather by Jenny Offill

Cutting right to the heart of what it feels like to be alive in 2020, Jenny Offill’s Weather is a novel of both anxiety and love. A librarian with a young son reckons with what climate change means both in this moment and in the future while coming to terms with what she wants the world to look like for her child. Offill knows what it’s like to face the end of the world and a grocery list—how the enormous concerns and minor annoyances can fuse together, rendering us exhausted and helpless. —AG

Offill talks Weather


Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby



The only writer who can make me laugh with abandon in public, Samantha Irby follows her breakout collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life with high-speed treatises on everything from relentless menstruation to “raising” her stepchildren and the stress of making friends in adulthood. Her signature irreverence is intact, of course, but it can’t mask the heart she leaves bleeding on the page. —JK


Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

You may be tempted to rush through the seven essays in Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings; her prose, at turns accusatory, complicit, and castigating, is so urgent, there’s a fear the book will catch fire if you put it down for a moment. But Minor Feelings begs to be read and re-read, highlighted and underlined and margianalia-ed for decades to come. A scorching exploration of what Hong calls “minor feelings”—“the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed”—this collection cuts to the heart of the Korean-American experience, calling on everything from Richard Pryor’s body of work to a long-overdue elegy for the late artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha to document the cumulative effect of prejudice on generations of Asian Americans. —JK


Godshot by Chelsea Bieker

Boasting arguably the most eye-catching cover of the year, Godshot, from debut author Chelsea Bieker, is an unnerving tour de force. Exploring the gritty, confounding ways innocence—especially girlhood—clash with spirituality, family, love, and gender, the story follows 14-year-old Lacey, who lives in a California town paralyzed by drought. The community is swept up in the words of a “pastor” who doles out “assignments” that promise to bring back the rain, and as Lacey navigates the confusion and horror of this false prophecy, she turns to a community of women to teach her the truth. —Lauren Puckett 


The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

It’s surprising to learn that such a mysterious and delicate book was inspired by something so loud and sensational as the Bernie Madoff saga. The Glass Hotel beautifully depicts the many lives impacted by the collapse of an ambitious Ponzi scheme, most notably a woman who escaped her haunted past in rugged Canada for a gilded existence as the much younger wife of a financial kingpin. —AG 


Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Acclaimed poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo left Mexico with his family when he was five years old and grew up navigating the tenuous existence of life undocumented in the U.S. His California upbringing is full of fear and worry that come to a head when he witnesses his father’s arrest and deportation. Children of the Land depicts life on both sides of the border and the feeling of living between two nations and cultures; his depiction of the current crisis is vivid, empathetic, and real. —AG


My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

If we tell ourselves stories in order to live, what happens when those narratives miss the truth? Kate Elizabeth Russell probes this question in 
her debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, which reads like a contemporary reimagining of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The story begins in 2000 at a New England boarding school, where 15-year-old Vanessa Wye falls for her charismatic English teacher and re- counts their romance. The author alternates between the past and a present in which an adult Vanessa is forced to confront the limitations of her own story. —BK 

Russell talks My Dark Vanessa


Here for It by R. Eric Thomas

Ballantine Books


You know R. Eric Thomas from his must-read ELLE.com column “Eric Reads the News,” but his first book—a read-in-one sitting memoir about battling loneliness and finding your voice—will make you laugh out loud and break your heart in equal measure before leaving you with that oft-elusive desire: hope. —JK

Read an excerpt


Writers & Lovers by Lily King

The writer’s life is brought to life with scary accuracy in the story of a young woman desperate for literary success while working in secret on a novel six years in the works. As she struggles to pay the bills with a restaurant job, grieves her mother, and juggles two very different men, the readers gets a vivid, funny, and altogether real look at what living a creative life means for a woman. —AG


The Resisters by Gish Jen

This year, a bevy of novels use technology-gone-amuck as the premise for dystopia. In The Resisters, author Gish Jen combines that premise with the anxiety around climate change. Her America of the future, called AutoAmerica, breaks people into two groups: the Aryan “Netted” people live on dry ground, and the “Surplus” live in the flooded regions. (It’s like a twenty-first century update on H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine.) Into all of this Gish throws baseball as a means of resistance. Says Ann Patchett, “The novel should be required reading for the country both as a cautionary tale and because it is a stone-cold masterpiece.” —BK 


I Know You Know Who I Am: Stories by Peter Kispert

In this debut collection, Peter Kispert takes a clever premise—stories about liars—and spins an extraordinary tapestry that questions why we lie and all the ripples (good, bad, and chaotic) that come from them. It’s a particularly…fertile area to explore at this moment in history, but I Know You Know Who I Am has a higher aim than simply scoring points off our fabulist leaders. In stories that are by turns blackly comic, speculative, romantic, and wistful, Kispert toys with the ideas of personal truth, deception (of self and other), and lies from so many angles that, taken as a whole, the collection wows with its insight, daring, and breadth of talent. —RET


A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Since she published The House of the Spirits in 1982, Isabel Allende has time and again proven herself a master of magical realism. Her latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea—about a couple who flee the Spanish Civil War to Chile, only to later find themselves endangered once again under the Pinochet dictatorship—is about refugees, displacement, and war, but also serves as a paean to human love and endurance. —Molly Langmuir


Long Bright River by Liz Moore

A Baltimore police officer, presiding over a neighborhood that has been devastated by the opioid epidemic, searches for her missing sister, an addict. Liz Moore has crafted a literary thriller that’s rapidly paced without compromising on depth. —AG


Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

When Anna Wiener moved to San Francisco at 25, the former sociology student dove headfirst into the Bay Area’s startup culture, in which twenty-somethings with little professional experience managed and stroked the egos of also-twenty-something CEOs. Her memoir reads like a literary ethnography of the rewards and risks of the sector’s early growth. —BK

Read an excerpt


Real Life by Brandon Taylor

In his shattering debut, Electric Literature and Literary Hub‘s Brandon Taylor explores the minor catastrophes and microaggressions of academia—here, a masters biochem program at an unnamed Midwestern university—through the eyes of Wallace, a gay Black student grappling with the contrast between what his life looks like to others and what he actually wants from it. —JK


Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart’s first novel steps into the literary lineage of Joyce’s Dubliners. Set nearly 70 years later, Stuart’s story tracks a mother and son as they search for social mobility and freedom in working-class Glasgow. The family battles alcoholism, sexuality taboo, and the constraints of domesticity, all packaged in the atmospheric lyricism of an epic. —BK


Apartment by Teddy Wayne

Apartment, by Teddy Wayne, a deftly composed novel about an unlikely friendship that develops, then devolves, between two men at an MFA program, is easy to speed through, but its ideas about masculinity, gender, and class will rattle around your mind for ages. —ML


We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan

Set amid the fraught intensity of a prestigious MFA program, We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan is a twisted campus novel told in the third person, which collectively expresses the perspective of three ambitious, brilliant students who take it upon themselves to present one of their professors as a plagiarist. It’s a rollicking read that offers a sharp take on the creative process, revenge, and envy. —ML


Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

When anyone asks for a book recommendation, this is my default pick for the new year. Reid’s brisk, darkly funny debut follows Emira, a Black, underemployed 25-year-old who splits her time between babysitting for a wealthy white family and working at Philadelphia’s Green Party office. When a late-night encounter with a grocery store security guard attracts unwanted attention, Emira’s life takes several unexpected turns. —BK

Reid Talks Such a Fun Age 


Tales of Two Planets edited by John Freeman

In this eye-opening anthology about climate change, an impressive cast of contributors including Edwidge Danticat, Mohammed Hanif, and Margaret Atwood reflect on how the grim horror of our current ecological reality is being felt around the world. —AG


Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould

The former Gawker writer and co-founder of the trailblazing (but recently discontinued) publishing house Emily Books, Emily Gould has long been a beloved staple of Literary Twitter. This year, she’s finally returned to publishing her own fiction, and her tale of mothers and musicians, Perfect Tunes, is a delight. In early-aughts New York City, songwriter Laura falls in love with the imperfect but enthralling musician Dylan. Fourteen years later, their daughter, Marie, seeks to discover the father she lost before she was born. —LP


Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh follows her beloved 2018 title, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, with a fresh take on the archetypal murder mystery. The novel tracks an isolated widow’s descent into madness after finding a mysterious note in the woods. —AG

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