If the headlines are to be believed, 2019 was a year of bold names in books. Literature’s most impressive heavyweights dropped new titles at an impressive rate. Highly-anticipated sequels finally came to fruition. Oprah Winfrey, of all people, re-launched her Book Club — kicking things off with the heaviest of heavyweights, no less.
But there were also many moments, of the slightly-less-bold-variety, worth celebrating this year: Debut authors became bestsellers and award winners, new voices and perspectives were welcomed with open arms, people stood in line all over the country to see millennial authors like Sally Rooney and Jia Tolentino. Oh, and we finally found out what happens to Baby Nicole.
As we close out the decade, EW is pausing to reflect on 2019’s literary milestones that shouldn’t be forgotten.
The Best of the Best
10. The Need by Helen Phillips
9. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
8. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
7. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
6. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
5. Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
4. Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
3. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
2. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
1. Normal People by Sally Rooney
(Read more about our favorite books of the year)
The Best of the Best — YA
10. Amelia Westlake Was Never Here by Erin Gough
9. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
8. Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
7. The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black
6. Hello Girls by Brittany Cavallaro and Emily Henry
5. The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh
4. Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi
3. Frankly in Love by David Yoon
2. Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali
1. The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
(Read more about our favorite YA titles of the year)
THE LITERARY SEQUEL RANKING
Sequels to three hugely popular — and brilliantly adapted — novels hit shelves this year. We rank them from best to worst.
1. OLIVE, AGAIN by Elizabeth Strout
The least clamored-for of the sequels here turns out to be the one we needed most. The indomitable Olive Kitteridge returns grouchier, funnier, and sadder than ever in Strout’s stunning book about getting older. Once again composed of linked stories, the novel explores the looming reality of death from angles both heartbreaking and hilarious, allowing its heroine to stay irascible and alienating, if also “a tiny — tiny — bit better as a person.”
2. THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood
The moment this 34-years-in-the-making follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale was announced, The Testaments felt like a literary blockbuster. It delivered, topping the New York Times best-seller list and getting scooped up by Hulu for a companion adaptation. Atwood couldn’t deliver a book quite as prescient as its groundbreaking predecessor, but in integrating events from the TV series, still found a thrilling, provocative new story in Gilead to tell.
3. FIND ME by André Aciman
There’s plenty of evocative prose and swoony romance to be found in the Call Me By Your Name sequel, but it feels a bit rushed out of the success of the 2017 Oscar-winning film. Elio and Oliver take a back seat, in fact, in the novel’s opening to Elio’s father, Samuel, who gets his own love story — albeit one that lacks the erotic passion of CMBYN. When our heroes finally take center stage, the book improves, though still not measuring up to the original.
THE YEAR’S MOST DIVISIVE LITERARY ENDING
Trust Exercise may be racking up awards, but its twisty structure has split readers. EW critics David Canfield and Leah Greenblatt weigh what worked and what didn’t.
David: The debate around Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise seems to focus on intent. Is she trying to pull a fast one on readers, veering from theater-arts high school melodrama into something much more meta, and then later, revisionist? Does she earn the right to repeatedly upend each detail in the novel readers thought to be real or true?
I’d argue yes. The book offers its surface pleasures: an evocative portrait of adolescence to start, a mournful meditation on memory and friendships to follow. Its late #MeToo turn seems a bit tacked on, but its provocations feel right for a 2019 book about adults, students, and power; a bit of righteous rage coursing through a story in which its author wields gonzo confidence. She offers something to argue about, complex and prescient. That’s worth treasuring.
Leah: I love a twist! The bombshell turns in the final pages of Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble were two of my favorite literary bait and switches this year. But I did feel a little bluffed out by Choi’s narrative choices in Trust (oh, the levels of Alanis Morissette irony in that title).
So we have the story of two smitten teenagers in Texas circa the mid-’80s, maybe, and their charismatic teacher. Or do we, is the jackknife thrown at us halfway through, and it’s not an unclever one. But it does feel a little bit like a dirty and maybe unnecessary trick: Yes, truth is subjective; yes, we all write our own realities. And yes, Choi writes hers way better than most. But I’d like to be trusted, too, to find my own honest way into a story — from page 1, not 133.
THE BOOK CLUB BONANZA
Literary-loving celebs transformed publishing in 2019, one book at a time. — David Canfield
Books will always have an audience, but in this era of streaming, tweeting, and political insanity, buzzy endorsements go a long way.
Just ask Etaf Rum or Delia Owens or Lara Prescott. There’s a good chance you still haven’t heard of any of these first-time novelists (before their work hit shelves this year, pretty much no one had). But each received huge platforms after being selected for celeb-led book clubs, and ascended to national best-seller status — a rarity for debut literary fiction. They affirmed to publishers and booksellers around the country that there’s still good reason to invest in the untested and the unknown.
Moguls like Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey have been doing this for years. But Witherspoon proved her influence over sales like never before with Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, a swampy Southern mystery, technically released last year. The book had been on shelves for weeks to little fanfare before Witherspoon’s promotion — oh, the power of her cozy bookish selfies! — made it this year’s No. 1 best-selling fiction title. She spotlighted other debuts, too, like Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept — a gloriously feminist period spy thriller — no doubt with an eye toward her next Big Little Lies-size Hollywood success. (Her 2017 selection Little Fires Everywhere hits the screen in a starry Hulu adaptation in 2020.)
Winfrey, meanwhile, partnered with Apple TV+ for a revamp of her famed book club, which launched in September with the first novel from essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer. On her glowing recommendation, it sold close to 100,000 copies in its first week alone — staggering by any measure — and is aggressively promoted across Apple’s and Oprah’s many platforms.
Then there’s 2019’s true game-changer: Jenna Bush Hager. The new Today cohost’s monthly Read With Jenna group began in the winter and has transformed niche literary titles — mostly from women and people of color — into commercial powerhouses: Rum’s generational saga of Palestinian women A Woman Is No Man, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Jamaican queer novel Patsy, Cara Wall’s faith-based The Dearly Beloved. She’s sending a clear message to publishers: Want to get your books in front of millions of people? Look to fresh, new voices.