The best debut novels of 2017
2017 was a bang-up year for first-time novelists, with riveting reads about female friendship like The Animators and Marlena sticking with readers for months, and hits like The Hate U Give and The Leavers nominated for big literary prizes. Read on to see our picks for the best debuts of the year — and the writers you should watch out for in years to come.
Kayla Rae Whitaker, The Animators
Whitaker’s delicious saga about two vivdly-realized avant garde cartoonists (who are also best friends) goes through so many twists and turns, I found myself asking multiple times, “Where can she possibly go from here?” Turns out the answer — aside from Brooklyn, central Florida, and rural Kentucky — is straight into your heart. Order it here.
Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
You probably haven’t heard of this one… just kidding! After Thomas’s YA debut, which spurred a fervent auction amongst 13 publishing houses, was published in early 2017, it shot straight onto the New York Times best-seller list — where it’s remained for 41 weeks and counting. The timely tale follows 16-year-old Starr, a high school student who sees her childhood best friend killed by a police officer. Scared and traumatized, she’s reluctant to speak out about the experience — but eventually finds her voice and is drawn to activism. Order it here.
Rachel Khong, Goodbye Vitamin
Khong’s slim, rollicking novel doesn’t sound too funny — it’s about a woman who’s just broken up with her fiancé and moves home to help care for her dementia-stricken father. But trust us, the former Lucky Peach executive editor infuses her debut with laugh-out-loud humor, warm pathos, and delicious food descriptions. Order it here.
Lisa Ko, The Leavers
Not only was Ko’s debut a National Book Award finalist this year, but it also won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction. The moving story follows a young boy named Deming Guo whose mother, an undocumented immigrant, disappears one day, leaving him to be adopted by two white professors who change his name to Daniel. Order it here.
Emily Ruskovich, Idaho
As her husband Wade’s memory slips away, Ann tries to figure out what happened to his first wife and their daughters. Order it here.
Weike Wang, Chemistry
Wang, who has a doctorate herself, makes a flailing Ph.D student’s breakdown utterly entertaining in this crisply written and compuslively readable snack of a novel. Order it here.
Julie Buntin, Marlena
Buntin’s Marlena unspools the dark, gorgeously written story of a fast-moving friendship between two teen girls that ends in one’s death. Order it here.
Emily Culliton, The Misfortune of Marion Palm
Marion Palm’s titular misfortune is all of her own making: The Brooklyn mother is on the run after embezzling money for years from her daughters’ elite school. In Culliton’s slick and surprising novel, we follow both Marion’s path as a fugitive, and her bereft family at home, where her aloof, self-absorbed husband is trying (sort of) to make sense of things, and her young daughters learn to live without their mother.
Order it here.
Brendan Mathews, The World of Tomorrow
Mathews brings the 1939 World’s Fair to life in this enthralling saga about three Irish brothers in New York City who are on the run from the IRA — and an assassin. Order it here.
Sarah Schmidt, See What I Have Done
Though it happened over a century ago, Schmidt makes Lizzie Borden’s infamous 1892 murder case feel gruesomely, viscerally real in this excellent historical thriller. Order it here.
Ayobami Adebayo, Stay with Me
College sweethearts Yejide and Akin eschewed their culture’s polygamist ways when they got married — but when four years pass and Yejide still isn’t pregnant, her family finds a second wife for Akin. To save her marriage, Yejide knows she has to find a way to get pregnant, but at what cost? Order it here.
Josephine Rowe, A Loving, Faithful Animal
When Jack, an Australian Vietnam War veteran, goes missing, his family flounders in his absence. At the same time, they begin to recognize that Jack’s own personal trauma has been passed along to them in myriad tragic ways. Order it here.
Jenny Zhang, Sour Heart
Zhang’s lively, gorgeously written short stories spotlight the lives of daughters of Chinese immigrants. Order it here.
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
We almost forgot this one since the inimitable Saunders is such a seasoned writer, but Lincoln in the Bardo — which nabbed this year’s Man Booker Prize — is the short story master’s debut novel. His wildly original rendering of a night in a graveyard with President Lincoln and his dead son, Willie, narrated by a Greek chorus of ghosts, will stay with us for years. Order it here.