Hundreds of thousands of books are published in the United States each year, and this dramatic influx of titles largely runs the calendars of the publishing and media industries—usually to the detriment of any work that isn’t brand new. Even best sellers or novels by famous authors get lost in the deluge, and books that were beloved on release can fall off readers’ radar quickly. But many were popular or critically acclaimed for good reasons, and they’re worth revisiting.
Here is a list of 15 fiction titles from the past two decades that you may have forgotten about in the years since. Some are from familiar names such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich; others are by authors you may not have heard of at all. These selections include plenty of drama, and there’s an undercurrent of gentle comedy, even in novels with dark themes or plots. Their characters define love in many different ways, and they seek fulfillment across geographies and time periods—contemporary London, Vichy France, Nigeria, North Korea. Ultimately, these stories are bound together by a compassion for their characters’ struggles and shortcomings—a quality that only our finest writers are able to cultivate.
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s tenth novel, a science-fiction story wrapped in a whodunit, throws noir tropes into a thoroughly modern setting and dares readers to keep up. It sometimes loses readers to her more accessible titles, such as the justly famous The Handmaid’s Tale or the imaginative MaddAddam trilogy, but The Blind Assassin stands out for its complicated structure and themes. The dual narrative follows Iris Griffen, angry and elderly, and her sister, Laura, whose book, also called The Blind Assassin, has made Laura into a kind of martyr after her death by suicide. Iris describes the siblings’ strange post–World War I upbringing: Their mother died in childbirth, their father slowly pickled himself in whiskey, and tutors came and went. Thanks to the large number of people obsessed with the book, Iris decides to tell her side of the story—and the sisters’ very different lives converge. The literary pyrotechnics Atwood employs are great fun to read, as she asks: What do we owe our families, past and present?
Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
Ali’s debut novel feels Dickensian, thanks to a cast of various lively characters. It’s set in a Bangladeshi corner of London, but it begins in Bangladesh, when Nazneen, whose younger sister, Hasina, has fallen in love and eloped, bends to her parents’ will and marries an older man named Chanu. After he moves her to England and she has three children, Nazneen surprises everyone (herself included) by developing a new independence and starting to navigate the city on her own. She begins an affair with a younger Muslim man named Karim, which provides her with romance and sexual fulfillment, but offers no easy escape from her daily obligations. Hasina’s fate is no easier—her promising match deteriorates, and so do her job prospects; both sisters must forge strong bonds with the women in their lives to find hope for their futures.
The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
The enslaver in this dense, astonishing consideration of the rot at America’s core is a Black man, Henry Townsend, who was once enslaved himself. That’s meant to be shocking, but it’s also historically accurate; a number of Black slaveowners did exist in the pre–Civil War United States. Townsend lies on his deathbed at the novel’s beginning, his wife, Caldonia, by his side. The book’s agile, omniscient narration, structured as a series of interconnected stories, leaps back and forth in time as frequently as it jumps between characters. We learn about Henry’s father, Augustus, who disapproved of his son’s decision to keep people in bondage, and about Caldonia’s twin brother, Calvin, and his unrequited love for another man. Occasionally Jones inserts invented references to fictional documents, which unmoors readers and makes them question the history they’ve been taught. Jones’s story painfully illustrates how insidious the evil of slavery was for all in its path.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The English residential school Hailsham first appears simultaneously quaint and menacing. Its students, including the book’s narrator, Kathy, engage in wholesome activities but are slowly introduced to their destiny: They are clones who will eventually have their organs harvested. Ishiguro isn’t writing pure science fiction, though; instead, he’s pursuing more elegant, metaphysical ideas. Do any of us have control over our own life? What do we do with the time we’re allotted? As Kathy grows up with, then takes a job caring for, her friends Tommy and Ruth, she knows that their bodies will be used until they die. Ishiguro writes a delicate dance between life’s moments of sheer joy—making art, learning to cook, falling in love—and their inescapable end. Tommy’s and Ruth’s coming of age is complicated by the state-sanctioned nature of the organ donation and the disturbed ethics of their existence, which destabilize our notions of what it means to be human. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is better known, but Never Let Me Go might be his most tender work.
Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky
The noted Ukrainian-French Jewish author Irène Némirovsky was arrested and deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died later that year. Her ambitious work Suite Française was planned as five novels, but only two exist; they were both published for the first time in 2004. (A third part was outlined but never completed.) They’re a master class in comic writing about small-town prejudice in wartime, filled with characters who bumble their way through important decisions. Storm in June, the first book, follows the invasion of France and its surrender to German forces through the eyes of two families, one upper-class, one middle-class. The second novel, Dolce, examines life in a village in Vichy France, where a woman whose house is commandeered by German officers must make a difficult choice between love and honor. Composed in the middle of the events it describes, Suite Française offers a surprising and incisive insider’s take on how the Nazis convinced so many French citizens to accept German rule.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
The especially precocious 16-year-old Blue van Meer enters her senior year at a new high school in North Carolina after moving there with her academic father, Gareth. The murder mystery she gets tangled in when she meets a group called the Bluebloods might remind readers of Donna Tartt’s work, but Pessl’s debut novel is compelling less because of its plot and more because of its unusual execution. Blue tells her story in a combination of arch references, allusions, and imperfect, sometimes clunky word collages, and she’s always telling readers that being a teen can get very old, very fast. Yet when the group starts investigating, the action gets very fast too, and we see that Pessl’s setup was a slow burn in service of a terrific denouement.
Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese
The twins Marion and Shiva Stone were once conjoined, so the effects of a major surgery are present in their very bones. As the brothers grow into adulthood and their own careers as surgeons, Verghese closely examines the bodies they cut open. That level of detail is perhaps not for the squeamish. However, it’s used to clue us in to the relationship between a surgeon’s precision and a body’s mess, and also references political upheaval and regime change in Ethiopia, where the brothers grow up, over decades. Verghese tries to do it all in his initial work of fiction (he wrote two fine memoirs first): He dips into history, tragedy, comedy, drama, reference, and documentary. If he sometimes misses the mark, it’s hard to fault him, especially because the story is tied together by a romance made as neatly as the finest sutures.
Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan
Each of the five stories in this wrenching collection is told from the perspective of a different child in a different African country. Akpan, a Jesuit priest, employs his faith’s purest anger to remove the curtain between privileged readers and impoverished characters. A girl watches her Hutu father join a murderous mob seeking Tutsi people like her mother. Another set of children obey their mom, who urges them to sniff glue to help them forget their extreme hunger. Akpan invokes an unmistakable fairy-tale violence, most visible in the “Hansel and Gretel”–like “Fattening for Gabon,” in which siblings sent to an uncle for safety have no idea of his cruel plans. Though Say You’re One of Them won prizes and was an Oprah’s Book Club pick, it’s been overlooked since, likely because of the difficult and painful material—both of which are its author’s deliberate choices—and not because of the writing or storytelling, which are superb.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson
Simonson’s book is worthy of a lead spot in any list of comedies of manners. When the staid, retired English Major Pettigrew starts a friendship with the local shopkeeper Mrs. Ali, who is Pakistani, he begins to realize for the first time how racist some of the local characters and conventions in his village are. As the Major and the Mrs. slowly fall in love, both contend with people who would prefer that the couple go their separate ways. Simonson uses well-worn archetypes (golf-club toadies, event-planning matrons) to great effect, showing how unnecessary those backward roles are in the modern world. A subplot about an heirloom shotgun feeds nicely into the book’s climax, and the prose has a controlled, even Austenian, sense of humor that illuminates everyone’s misplaced expectations.
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
In a fictional but detailed version of North Korea, being a citizen of the state takes precedence over any personal identity. Johnson’s protagonist, Jun Do (think “John Doe,” as you’re meant to), starts life in great deprivation in an orphanage. He undergoes a series of strange adventures that includes a stint in the United States and capture, imprisonment, and torture by his government. Jun Do winds up impersonating an important military commander, whose actor wife Jun Do loves beyond reason. He grows into a complex character whom you root for, even when he suffers at the hands of one of the novel’s three narrators, an interrogator fast losing faith in his superiors. Although The Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it deserves renewed attention 10 years on, at a time when agency, kindness, and love are more important to protect than ever.
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
Every Jess Walter novel is an immersive experience, but Beautiful Ruins literally opens with a watery submersion off the coast of Genoa, Italy, in 1962. A starlet named Dee Moray arrives there straight from the set of Cleopatra (yes, the one with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). Sparks fly between Dee and a local pensione proprietor named Pasquale, who works at the “Hotel Adequate View.” But just as you settle in for an Italian beachside romance, Walter lobs the story 50 years into the future, when a Hollywood production office is having its “Wild Pitch Friday.” For reasons that will eventually be made clear, Pasquale sits and waits to offer up his story, and Walter launches into a series of vignettes that demonstrate the many ways people rummage through their lives to make art, whether through movies, memoir, or novels. Beautiful Ruins is brash, sly, and delightful.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
Some critics prefer other Erdrich novels, including Love Medicine or The Night Watchman. But The Round House is among her best, and should be read for the voice of its narrator, Joe Coutts, an Ojibwe lawyer whose tale begins in 1988, when he’s 13. That summer, he and his father separately, and dangerously, pursue justice for his mother’s harrowing rape. Erdrich’s authorial genius is evident in the way she gives voice to a personal experience of deep pain and connects it to the ongoing violence of settler colonialism that crosses generations, while allowing the younger Joe an adolescent ease with his friends.
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
Ozeki, an award-winning author and a Zen Buddhist priest, considers how writing and mortality intertwine in A Tale for the Time Being. The story is full of wonderful specificity, such as how one of its narrators, the teenage Nao, keeps her diary and other papers in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. The other narrator, also called Ruth, has moved to Canada’s Vancouver Island in search of a simpler life, but when Nao’s lunchbox washes up on the beach, Ruth finds her existence changed by its contents. The novel explores depression and introduces, among other things, a subplot about a kamikaze pilot, but it never feels despairing, and Ozeki doesn’t burden readers with high-flying concepts. The “time being” of the title refers both to the fleeting nature of the present moment and to humans themselves, whose lives, Nao writes, are governed by the flow of time. The wordplay serves as a reminder that all stories and all people have their places, but also their endings.
Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta
Ijeoma, the narrator and protagonist of Okparanta’s debut novel, grows up during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s. She is sent away from Biafra to family friends for safety, where she first falls in love with another girl, Amina. Even after their relationship is discovered and the two are separated, Ijeoma has a romance with another woman, Ndidi, until she bows to maternal pressure and marries a man. Although the backdrop to much of Ijeoma’s story is war and famine, the action can be rich and sweet, as she and her lovers discover their true selves. Okparanta’s no-nonsense prose and focused narration help make Ijeoma’s voice stand out in a book as gentle as it is real.
Sea Monsters, by Chloe Aridjis
Luisa appears to us as a teenager in the late ’80s, roaming a beach town called Zipolite in Oaxaca, where she’s arrived with her brooding goth boyfriend, Tomás, in search of a group of runaway circus performers. Aridjis won the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction with this atmospheric and whimsical coming-of-age story, but it was published by a small press and should find more readers. Nothing much happens in Luisa’s tale—except experience, which may be one of the most challenging things to capture on the page. Luisa adores The Smiths and Joy Division and wants to carve a space for herself in a life that has so far been dictated by her scholarly parents and their values. If Luisa finds the feelings and places she’s longing for, what will happen to her? Will she be better off? Satisfied? Or will she not yet have the maturity she needs to appreciate what she wants? Aridjis’s novel asks these questions and more, but smartly, it doesn’t worry about the answers.
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