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The 25 best books set in or about New York

It's a feat of extraordinary diligence worthy of a genius mind: to pen a book that truly captures the essence of a constantly changing New York.

Anna Rahmanan
Written by
Anna Rahmanan
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It is incredibly hard to write about New York, a city defined by its diversity of character and spirit—but that's exactly why we deem the best books set in or about New York to be some of the most incredible additions to the American literary canon, period.

From always-referred to classics like The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to more recent publications like Hanya Yanagihara's soul-crushing A Little Life, this unranked list makes up what we believe to be any New Yorker's essential reading compilation.

Although spanning themes and tones, all mentioned books have one thing in common: they celebrate all the tiny things that makes New York so freaking grand.

The 25 best books set in or about New York

'The New York Trilogy' by Paul Auster
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'The New York Trilogy' by Paul Auster

Not quite like any other entry on this list, Paul Auster's New York Trilogy is a series of novels that were first published sequentially but have since been presented in a single volume.

It's hard to describe what City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986) are really about. On the surface, they're detective novels, but, upon a deeper reading, they clearly address the sorts of philosophical and ethical questions that New Yorkers in specific, and Americans at large, constantly struggle with, including matters of identity and mortality.

'Breakfast at Tiffany's' by Truman Capote
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'Breakfast at Tiffany's' by Truman Capote

It is astounding to think that the author of the literary masterpiece that is In Cold Blood is the same one who gifted the world Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Alas, that is where Truman Capote’s brilliance lays: his ability to inhabit any world and catapult the reader into a romanticized yet true-to-reality version of, well, reality.

The 1958 novella introduces audiences to Holly Golightly, a naive and spoiled society girl played by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film adaptation of the literary work.

Narrated by an unnamed writer who lives in the same Upper East Side brownstone as Golightly, the story revolves around the relationship between the two characters, specifically dissecting how Golightly's lifestyle as an "American geisha," as suggested by Capote himself, affects it.

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'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay' by Michael Chabon

For some reason, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is not readily referred to as a must-read New York book of the caliber of, say, Catcher in the Rye. That's a shame.

The 2000 novel did win the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 2001, after all. What's more, Bret Easton Ellis even called it "one of the three great books of my generation" alongside Jonthan Franzen's The Corrections and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude.

Chabon's work centers around two Jewish cousins, Czech artist Joe Kavalier and writer Sammy Clay, who is from Brooklyn. The book focuses on their respective lives before, during and after World War II.

'Great Jones Street' by Don DeLillo

Bucky Wunderlick is a rock 'n roll diety who suddenly abandons his band to spend time alone in his empty apartment on—you guessed it!—Great Jones Street, specifically hoping to learn how to deal with the endless scrutiny of his fans and the media.

Although published in 1973, the novel clearly explores topics that are at the heart of today's culture, especially given New York's devotion to the concept of celebrity and the constant paparazzi that swirm around town.

Will humans ever learn how to deal with fame in ways that don't destroy lives? If the time elapsed between the publication of Don DeLillo's tome and today is of any indication, we have not yet learned our lesson.

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'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Not many New York-based books feature Long Island as their primary setting—except for what is perhaps considered to be the New York novel par excellance, The Great Gatsby.

The story told in the 1925 book takes place during the Roaring Twenties, complete with the sort of speakeasies and underground cultural pursuits that New York still lays claim to a century later. Nick Carraway is the first-person narrator who is obsessed with millionaire Jay Gatsby and the latter's devotion to former girlfriend Daisy Buchanan. In addition to providing a glimpse into the era within the world of New York, the book has been praised for its indirect commentary on themes like the American Dream, social mobility, racism and antisemitism.

'City of Girls' by Elizabeth Gilbert

It is 1940 and Vivian Morris moves to Manhattan to live with her aunt Peg after getting kicked out of Vassar College. That's exactly when Morris' world virtually expands to include a rotating cast of characters that are associated with the midtown theater that aunt Peg owns.

Elizabeth Gilbert pens an entertaining story that is as much a love letter to New York as it is a manifest intended to relay the importance of the theater industry in shaping the town's cultural spirit.

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'City on Fire' by Garth Risk Hallberg
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'City on Fire' by Garth Risk Hallberg

In the past few years, novels about New York have been criticized as not necessarily capturing the essence of a city in the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe have been able to do decades ago. That all changed when Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire, the author's first ever novel, was released in 2015.

The book was immediately deemed outstanding, so much so that Hallberg actually received a $2 million advance for his work —a sum by many outlets reported to be the highest ever for a debut novel.

A TV adaptation of the book has been in the works for years and it will finally air on Apple TV some time this year.

Equally reminiscent of The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Goldfinch in terms of tone and themes explored, City on Fire chronicles the aftermath of a shooting that occurs in Central Park on New Year's Eve in the 1970s, bringing readers face to face with a number of very New York City-like characters while exploring subjects like racism and violence that unfortunately still plague town today.

One single question follows a reading of the pretty hefty tome: why hasn't Hallberg written a second book yet? 

'Forever' by Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill, who passed at the age of 85 in 2020, was the embodiment of New York. A prolific writer through and through with a deep relationship with Brooklyn (and local sports teams!), Hamill spent his entire life chronicling the city's cultural happenings both at his jobs at The New York Post and the Daily News and all throughout his many books, including Forever, his 2003 work of fiction about a man who is granted immortality as long as he never leaves Manhattan.

If the mere premise of the work gives you the chills, it is because the concept is a clear commentary on the relationship that most people seem to develop with New York: we can't (or don't want to?) ever leave.

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'The Best of Everything' by Rona Jaffe

It seems like most successful books about New York chronicle stories that involve the publishing industry.

Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything is one such tome, a best-seller that The New Yorker deemed to be "Sex and the City [if] set inside Mad Men's universe." The description couldn't be more apt: the book is about three women who meet while working at a publishing house and Jaffe herself reportedly interviewed fifty females familiar with corporate America to make the plot as authentic as possible. If you're thinking the novel to be a precursor to the #MeToo movement, you wouldn't be the first.

'Washington Square' by Henry James

If you haven't heard of Washington Square, Henry James' acclaimed 1880 novel about a father who tries to stop his daughter from marrying a man that he believes only wants her money, you've probably heard of the Academy Award winning 1949 film The Heiress that was based on it (technically, the novel was adapted into a play by that name that was then turned into a movie).

Perhaps one of the oldest tomes on this list, the novel gives a now rare gimpse into Greenwich Village in the 1840s, a neighborhood both very different and alike the coveted one that New Yorkers relate to today.

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'Passing' by Nella Larsen

Clearly referring to racial passing, a term that calls out to the practice of presenting oneself as belonging to a different racial group given ambiguous physical attributes, this 1929 novel by Nella Larsen was ahead of its time, likely given the author's own mixed heritge.

Nearly a century following its debut, the book—one of two ever that Larsen published—was turned into black-and-white movie of the same name.

The story across the two formats follows Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, are childhood friends whose lives constantly intertwine and whose relationship heavily rests on Kendry's attempts to pass as white.

'The Fortress of Solitude' by Jonathan Lethem

There's a lot to unpack in Jonathan Lethem's 2003 semi-autobiographical novel set in Brooklyn. First of all, the work spans three full decades—the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when a variety of personalities, trends and historical facts developed in ways that still resonate within the borough today.

Mostly, though, The Fortress of Solitude is a book about race, a theme explored through its two teenage protagonists, Dylan Ebdus and Minus Rude, one white and the other black. Expect conversations about gentrification and racial culture to take center stage both directly and in more subtle ways throughout the entire book.

In case you were wondering, the title is a reference to Superman's Fortress of Solitude, where the superhero first learned about his true identity.

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'Rosemary's Baby' by Ira Levin

It's hard to write a good horror novel, and it's even harder to write one based in New York City—which is probably why no book within the genre has yet reached the level of fame that Ira Levin's 1967 Rosemary's Baby enjoys.

Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy just moved into the Bramford, a historic apartment building in Manhattan, despite being warned about the structure's murder- and witchcraft-adjancent history. Fast-foward a few months and a bunch of Satanic-like happenings, and you're in for some petrifying reading material.

'Bright Lights, Big City' by Jay McInerney
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'Bright Lights, Big City' by Jay McInerney

At first read, Jay McInerney's much talked about 1984 novel doesn't feel like an authetic exploration of New York. Something about it simply feels too extra and almost made up.

And yet, upon a second reading, the book suddenly feels just as ridiculous as the mid-1980s were like in New York—which is the exact time frame that the character dwells in.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the book is that, although the narrator is a 24-year-old fact-checker with dreams of writing, the story is told in the second person.

McInerney himself turned the book into a screenplay for a film that was then released in 1988. Eleven years later, in 1999, the New York Theater Workshop produced an Off Broadway stage musical based on the book. Clearly, there is an audience for it.

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'Jazz' by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's books are usually associated with the Black experience around the country. Jazz is not any different, but it also happens to tangentially offer a commentary on life in Harlem in the 1920s. 

The 1992 historical novel looks at the marriage between Joe and Violet Trace, both its formation and crumbling, through literary methods that actually remind of the way jazz music is played. 

 

'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
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'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is clearly an icon within literary circles, but not many know that, although a prolific poet, she only wrote one novel throughotu her career, the legendary The Bell Jar. Fun fact: Plath actually originally published the book under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

Although semi-autobiographical, readers have always associated the novel's plot, which tells the story of 19-year-old Esther Greenwood as she moves to New York City for an internship at a magazine but eventually spirals into mental illness, with Plath's own life: the author committed suicide a mere month after the book was published in the United Kingdom.

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'Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger
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'Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

Classics are classic for a reason, including J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye—a novel that has turned its main character, Holden Caulfield, into a prime example of teenage rebellion and New York the ideal setting for a coming-of-age saga.

The tale is a predictable yet enticing one: after 17-year-old Caulfield gets expelled from school, he roams around Manhattan, getting to know the town and its flowery characters directly but unable to develop any sort of real connection to anything around him.

'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith
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'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith

The 1943 semi-autobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place in the Williamsburg of days yore, before world-renowned restaurants and super-tall skyscrapers revolutionized the area and brought it one step closer to Manhattan.

Split into five sections, each detailing a different period of time throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, the novel turns Brooklyn into a sort of character as well, clearly noting how the protagonist's upbringing was entirely interlaced with the neighborhood she calls home. 

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'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt
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'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is an interesting entry. The book’s intentions are astonishing and, mostly, delivered: the story is a grandiose one about Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker who survives an accident but is taken in by the family of his wealthy friend given the fact that his mom has died and his father has abandoned him. Looking at the world from his new fabulous home on Park Avenue, Decker befriends the owner of an antique store and constantly refers to a small painting of a goldfinch that reminds him of his mother.

The massive novel is beautifully written, describing New York in ways that perhaps no author before Tartt has been able to do and yet, come to the ending, it doesn't feel complete. It is, of course, totally worth reading regardless.

'Joan is Okay' by Weike Wang

Not many novels focus on the Chinese immigrant experience within the confines of a New York lifestyle—a fact that automatically makes Weike Wang's Joan is Okay worthy of discussion.

The story is about thirty-something Joan, an ICU doctor working at a Manhattan hospital whose parents returned to China following her and her brother Fang's move to New York and the establishment of the siblings' respective careers.

Once her husband passes, though, Joan's mother decides to move back to America to be closer to her children. The relocation kicks off a series of events that has Joan wonder about who she is as a person in respect to her Chinese-American upbringing, her demanding career and the character of a city as unique as New York.

Born in Nanjing, China, Wang is clearly well-versed in the topic at hand—one that doesn't get much attention in the news, especially in light of recent attacks on the Chinese American community.

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'The Devil Wears Prada' by Lauren Weisberger

Hereby rests the "Great New York Novel" conundrum: can contendeers like The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Bell Jar and Jazz realistically be mentioned alongside the likes of The Devil Wears Prada?

Alas, isn't that exactly what New York is? An amalgamation of stark differences that, with a seeming touch of magic, coalesce to present an oddly uniform image of the character of the city?

Based on that premise, the 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada would likely represent the vast number of fashion students that land in New York in the hopes of making it to Fashion Week. They, indeed, are just as emblematic to the city as, say, New York Times reporters or Upper East Side retirees living in brownstones with driveways.

That is all to say that, yes, Lauren Weisberg's uber successful novel about Andrea Sachs, a Brown University graduate who moves to New York City in the hopes of pursuing a career in publishing, deserves a spot in the local literary canon.

Perhaps even more iconic than the book, though, was its 2006 Hollywood adaptation directed by David Frankel and starring Anne Hathaway as the protagonist and Meryl Streep as the unforgettable Miranda Priestly, the Anna Wintour-like fashion magazine editor that hires Andrea as her co-assistant.

'The Age of Innocence' by Edith Wharton

Basically any book by Edith Wharton belongs on a best books about New York list, but, frankly, not every Wharton book is for everyone.

The Age of Innocence is, perhaps, the most widely read and for good reason: Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction after publishing it and officially became the first woman to ever be granted the accolade.

Set in the Gilded Age, a period of time under more scrutiny in recent months given the beloved HBO show The Gilded Age, the story is about the upper class. Specifically, it focuses on aristocratic lawyer Newlad Archer and his fiancee May Welland. When Welland's European cousin Ellen heads to New York because of a disgraceful episode in her hometown, Archer falls for her. The plot is certainly expected, but why is that bad?

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'Harlem Shuffle' by Colson Whitehead

Culminating in the Harlem riot of 1964, this 2021 book by Colson Whitehead actually originated before his 2019 The Nickel Boys, a novel based on the real story of the Dozier School in Florida that earned the writer his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (his 2016 work, The Intuitionist; The Underground Railroad, granted him the first such accolade).

Telling the story of Ray and Elizabeth Carney, who are trying to make an honest living on 125th Street, the novel chronicles the struggles that Ray lives through while trying to stay away from his criminal family. His own cousin Freddie doesn't help matters: after planning a heist-gone-wrong, Ray is pulled in the middle of a situation he was always trying to avoid.

'The Bonfire of the Vanities' by Tom Wolfe
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'The Bonfire of the Vanities' by Tom Wolfe

This 1987 Tom Wolfe novel is by many considered to be the quintessential New York work of fiction, originally conceived as a series of books that ran in Rolling Stone magazine across 27 installments starting in 1984.

The author did revise the story before publishing it as a book, which instantly became a bestseller and was turned into a film by Brian De Palma in 1990. Unfortunately, the movie was not as well-received as its literary inspiration was.

The story centers on uber successful New York City bond trader Sherman McCoy, who accidentally enters the Bronx in his car while out with his mistress Maria Ruskin. Attempting to exit the neighborhood, the couple is approached by two Black men whom they believe to be predators and, while trying to race the car away, Ruskin strikes one of the two men.

The plot unfolds across many layers: a police investigation that leads to McCoy slowly losing his sanity, the involvement of a has-been alcoholic journalist seeking to solve the mystery on behalf of a tabloid and the participation of religious and political leader in Harlem who seems to be looking for justice.

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'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara
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'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara

When Hawaiian novelist Hanya Yanagihara released A Little Life in 2015, the world noticed—and everyone seems to still be talking about it.

That's likely due to the candid nature of the author's writing and subject matter: trauma, disability, depression, shame and chronic pain. 

To explore the themes, Yanagihara uses four different chacracters, all recent graduates of a prestigious college in New England who move to New York to—what else?—chase their dreams in law, acting, art and architecture. The lawyer, Jude, becomes the undisputed protagonist whom readers want to look away from given his self-harming tendencies but can't.

Benefiting from Americans' penchant for sadness, a universal trait that also explains the popularity of TV shows like The Handmaid's Tale and Sharp ObjectsA Little Life is now considered a modern-day classic.

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