EW's critics highlight their favorite reads of the year.

By Leah Greenblatt and David Canfield
December 07, 2020 at 04:10 PM EST
Credit: Illustration by EW

Much has been said about the fact that 2020 was the year of the book. While the pandemic has left no corner of pop culture untouched, the publishing industry was comparatively less scathed. Trauma of trying to release, distribute, and promote a book remotely aside, the year produced so many good reads. Several second-books made our list, proving that there is no such thing as the literary sophomore slump; our favorites also included short stories, political auto-fiction and a 1,000-plus-page biography — so there truly is something for everybody.

Credit: Knopf

Centered on a terrorist act at a Kolkata train station, Majumdar’s debut refracts its story through three vastly different souls — a young girl from the slums, her officious male teacher, and a transgender beggar named Lovely — but the result is both seamless and thrilling, a tale of modern India drawn in lightning. —Leah Greenblatt

Credit: Knopf

A 1,000-page-plus biography of Sylvia Plath, you say? Improbably, perhaps, there’s something for everyone: a treasure trove of artifacts for fans; a searing reflection of a genius’ work for scholars; and for general readers, a life chronicled with propulsion — like a thriller (almost) too good to be true. —David Canfield

Credit: Random House

The people who populate the short stories in Daddy are frankly, for the most part, pretty terrible: bullies and cheaters, liars and lost souls, paragons of self-delusion. But even in snapshot mode, Cline (The Girls) manages to bring them vividly to life in diamond-sharp sentences that cut and cauterize on every page. —L.G.

Credit: Penguin

Good luck finding a box to put this one in. The Good Lord Bird author went even wilder with this boisterous, imaginative, tender foray into late-1960s Brooklyn. Set in the aftermath of a shooting and zigzagging around dozens of characters, it at times plays like a tense mystery; at others, a lazy hangout comedy. —D.C.

This portrait of unfathomable grief, raging virus, and artistic inspiration may have felt particularly suited for 2020, but O’Farrell’s style is more timeless. More surprising, too: Who knew the (fictionalized) story of the death of Shakespeare’s son could hum with such vitality? —D.C.

Credit: Riverhead

Washington’s first novel vividly examines the flailing romance of two men as they're separated by circumstance. But most memorably, it’s a feast for the senses; the author’s love of food, feel for sexual chemistry, and fascination with different cultures make for the best kind of immersion. —D.C.

Credit: Ecco

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and nobody feels fine. Somehow, though, Alam (That Kind of Mother) has managed to write a dystopian novel that still reads like the best kind of escapism: a thrummingly smart tale of race and class in a luxe Hamptons rental teetering on the edge of apocalypse. —L.G.

Credit: Little, Brown and Company

The latest from the Pulitzer-winning playwright and author can’t strictly be called fiction; his kaleidoscopic portrait of alienation and identity in a post-9/11 world is too starkly personal for that. Instead, in ferociously resonant prose, he explores what it is to be an artist and a citizen, living in his American skin. —L.G.

Trading in the sweep of her 2016 debut, Homegoing, for a more precise, layered novel, Gyasi showcases remarkable range with this tale of a Ghanaian family in Alabama. Her incisive exploration of faith in immigrant communities made for some of the year’s most engrossing storytelling. —D.C.

Credit: Knopf Doubleday

There’s nothing transparent about Emily St. John Mandel’s moody, mesmerizing trick of a novel — a book built, not unlike its namesake hotel, as a sort of haunted memory palace, full of blind corners and hidden cul-de-sacs. The plot, such as it is, concerns a struggling composer in Toronto, a beautiful young woman named Vincent, and a New York hedge-fund titan whose famed financial wizardry may not be what it seems. When their paths converge at the remote Canadian resort of the title, the consequences will ricochet from the wilds of British Columbia to the concrete canyons of Manhattan and beyond. If Glass bites off a lot — about sex and power, money and family, fate and coincidence — it does it with supreme style, an intoxicating enigma till the end. —L.G.

For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Dec. 18. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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