EW book critics David Canfield and Leah Greenblatt break down their top 10 reads of 2019.
10. The Need by Helen Phillips
Is it a hothouse domestic drama? Slow-burn science fiction? Straight-up metaphysical horror? All that, and more: Phillips’s spare allegory of a young mother who unearths a series of strange objects in an excavation pit offers a Twilight Zone premise with a jaw-dropping metaphysical twist. —Leah Greenblatt
9. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
An intimate memoir that doubles as a rigorous history of New Orleans, Broom’s National Book Award-winning debut, constructed in gorgeous prose and carried along by a melancholy look at the passage of time, evolves into a rich, pained meditation on the limits of the American Dream. —David Canfield
8. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
Wilson’s vibrantly original new novel about a woman’s adoption of moody twins who (literally!) catch on fire gets plenty weird, but resonates as a warm, funny ode to the mysteries of parenthood. —DC
7. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
Phillips’ assured first novel, set on a freezing, remote Russian peninsula where two girls go missing, develops into a story of land, women, and community that finds grace in quiet, radical empathy. You might first read it as a collection of haunting, piercing short-stories, but this is an elegiac literary thriller at its heart, overflowing with conclusive power in its final pages. —DC
6. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
So joyfully uncontained it can hardly pause for punctuation, this surprise Booker Prize winner unfurls a fantastically panoramic survey of modern womanhood: radical lesbian separatists, sexually fluid millennials, mad housewives, middle-aged cleaning ladies, bankers and bloggers and teachers. Most of them are black or brown, but Girl truly reads like a rainbow — literary fiction written in pure, glorious Technicolor. —LG
5. Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
A sweeping family saga that refracts the Great American Novel through a New England funhouse mirror. Come for the candlepin bowling, stay for some of the wildest death scenes ever put to paper. —DC
4. Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Dr. Toby Fleishman is a man on the edge of a nervous breakthrough: newly separated and suddenly alive to all the sexual possibilities a midlife hepatologist–slash-single dad can find in Manhattan with the touch of a smartphone button. But also, incidentally, where the hell did his soon-to-be-ex-wife just disappear to? Brodesser-Akner’s casually brilliant debut reads like a clever featherweight caper, but ends with a true thunderbolt. —LG
3. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
Not every work of narrative nonfiction solves a crime. But Keefe’s riveting foray into an evocative murder mystery from Ireland’s Troubles period makes good on its juicy whodunit promise. That he manages a stunning investigation of community trauma, illuminates a distinctive cast of characters with novelistic nuance, and leaves room for fascinating (and sometimes bizarre) historical detail? You’ve got one of the decade’s best nonfiction reads. –DC
2. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead somehow outdid his 2016 phenomenon The Underground Railroad with this devastating tale of two black boys coming of age at an abusive reform school in Jim Crow Florida, building toward an unforgettable, tragic finale. With each astoundingly unique book (this one spare and sort of brutally straightforward), the Pulitzer Prize winner is proving he’s no one kind of writer — except, maybe, a brilliant one. —DC
1. Normal People by Sally Rooney
Boy (handsome, charming, proudly working-class) meets girl (clever, brittle, and despite all her family money, friendless). They fall in like or lust or maybe love; the mortal insecurities and social Darwinism of high school make it hard to tell. But when the pair finally leave their small Irish village for college in Dublin, the dynamic between them begins to shift, electrically. At 28, Rooney (Conversations With Friends) isn’t too far removed from her own protagonists; maybe that’s why she writes with such veil-piercing clarity about the endlessly messy journey of growing up and into oneself. But her youth wouldn’t mean much without all the wisdom contained in People’s cool, sparsely worded prose — every new paragraph illuminating something essential, universal, and true. —LG
The Next 10
11. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: Woodson’s grasp of history’s weight on individuals — and definitive feel for borough life, past and present — proves to be as emotionally transfixing as ever.
12. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: A gorgeously kaleidoscopic feat — not just of literature but of pure, uncut humanity.
13. Inland by Téa Obreht: What Obreht pulls off in her second novel’s conclusion is pure poetry. It doesn’t feel written so much as extracted from the mind in its purest, clearest, truest form.
14. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: The Olive Kitteridge sequel explores aging with profound grace, forcing its characters to face what they’ll leave behind, or what they’ve been left with.
15. Exhalation by Ted Chiang: So provocative, imaginative, and soulful that it makes Black Mirror look drab and dull by comparison.
16. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: If the children are our future, what lies ahead for a country that fails them? Luiselli initiates a reckoning in her new novel that pulses with urgency and lingers with timelessness.
17. The Light Years by Chris Rush: You don’t need to have led a fascinating life to write a great memoir. But God, does it help.
18. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Depictions of poverty, queerness, and the immigrant experience are vivid, exacting, and humane. Same goes for On Earth as a whole.
19. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: A gonzo literary performance one could mistake for a magic trick, duping its readers with glee before leaving them impossibly moved.
20. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo: It’s Taddeo’s deep, almost feverish commitment to detail and context that elevates the stories, making them feel not just painfully real but revelatory.