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With a new decade soon upon us, many lists have appeared ranking the best whatever of the last ten years, like this one from Lit Hub, which ranks novels. Their list inspired me to start thinking about one of my own. I’ve tracked each book I’ve read since 2010, so I looked over all of those titles and tried to narrow it down to a top ten. This project did not go well at first. After several drafts and deep breaths, though, I’ve finally put together a list that feels right. To avoid a nervous breakdown, I focused only on fiction (sorry, poetry and nonfiction). I might change my mind tomorrow, but as of now, here are the novels I’ve loved most during the past ten years.
Stoner by John Williams
Published in 1965 | Read in 2010
When Stoner appeared in 1965, it didn’t make much impact. It received praise but wasn’t popular. When New York Review Books published the book again in the 2000s, it became a cult hit. A former coworker recommended the book to me, raving about how good it was. I knew he was right within a few pages. I’ve seen Stoner referred to as a perfect novel, and I tend to agree. It’s a quiet, unassuming story about the life of William Stoner, a midwestern man who pursues his love of literature, gets married, has a daughter, and must face his share of regrets and disappointments. This novel is for readers who love character development and appreciate stories about the ordinariness of life. I’m grateful Stoner finally got the attention it deserves.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Published in 1992 | Read in 2012
I wish I could remember what led me to Donna Tartt, but I don’t. What I do remember, though, is finishing the last page of The Secret History and wishing I could start all over again, never having read it before. I wanted to experience the book again for the first time because the story and eccentric characters enthralled me. The novel takes place at a college in New Hampshire, where a small group of classics students becomes devoted to a mysterious professor. In the book’s first few pages, readers know that one of those students has died. What we don’t know is what led to his death and how the others were involved. Tartt’s prose is gorgeous, and her ability to build suspense even after revealing a major plot point at the very beginning is unmatched. The Secret History is fiction at its finest.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Published in 2004 | Read in 2015
You might not think a novel written in the form of a father’s letter to his son would make for fascinating reading, but you’d be wrong. Gilead is a stunning meditation on faith, family, and what makes us human. I rarely write in my fiction books, yet it seems as if every other sentence of this novel is underlined. If you appreciate thoughtful, reflective literature, don’t miss this gem.
In the Woods by Tana French
Published in 2007 | Read in 2018
One of my biggest reading regrets is waiting so long to read Tana French. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the reigning queen of the police procedural. In the Woods is everything I want in a suspense or mystery novel: it’s well-written, has a moody setting, is full of well-rounded characters, and contains just enough creepiness to keep me on the edge of my seat. French starts her Dublin Murder Squad series with Rob, a detective with a lot of baggage. He started life as Adam, the boy who was left behind when two of his friends vanished in the woods one day. They were never found and Adam couldn’t remember what happened, so he changed his name and everything else about his life. When a young girl is found dead in the same woods where his friends disappeared, Rob must face everything he’s been running from, whether he’s ready or not. (If you’re a fan of this book, check out the new Dublin Murders series on STARZ. It’s fantastic.)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Published in 2013 | Read in 2013
Saying that Night Film is a suspense novel feels like saying the Beatles were a rock band. It’s true, but there’s so much more that needs to be said. Pessl’s second novel tells the story of a young woman’s apparent suicide. Her father is an iconic and reclusive horror filmmaker. When a journalist gets suspicious and starts investigating the death, he sets out on a journey that will keep you turning the pages all night long. Night Film makes the reader feel as if she’s in one of the horror films the book references. This novel is creepy, engaging, well-written, and utterly brilliant. I love it.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Published in 2015 | Read in 2016
No other novel has wrecked me the way A Little Life did. I was an emotional mess for several days after finishing this 720-page masterpiece. The book is about a group of four male friends but focuses on Jude, a deeply-wounded man who is no stranger to trauma and heartache. A Little Life follows him, Willem, JB, and Malcolm throughout a few decades of their lives. Though this book contains some genuinely bleak content, it’s a love letter to friendship, the families we choose, and the families who choose us.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Published in 2016 | Read in 2017
Two things surprise me about The Nix. The first is that it’s a debut novel, and the second is that it works. It’s over 500 pages, goes back and forth in time, is full of different characters, addresses topics like academia, war, relationships, politics, and old family myths, and somehow it not only works but exceeds any expectations I had for it. At the center of this sweeping story is Samuel, a bored college professor whose only joy in life is a video game. After being out of touch with his mother for years, they reunite, and their reunion sets off a series of events and remembrances. There were so many different threads throughout this novel, and I knew there was no way Hill was going to weave them all together in the end. I was wrong, and he did. The Nix is an outstanding novel, and I cannot wait to see what Hill does next.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published in 2016 | Read in 2019
Homegoing isn’t a long novel, yet it encompasses over three hundred years. The story begins during the eighteenth century in Ghana, where we meet two sisters named Esi and Effia. Their lives diverge, and the rest of the novel follows their descendants to present-day America. Homegoing is not only an excellent piece of fiction, but it helped me understand how the shameful legacy of slavery affects generations.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published in 2017 | Read in 2017
Jojo and his little sister Kayla live with their grandparents in Mississippi. Their black mother, Leonie, is a drug addict, and their white father is in prison. When he gets released, Leonie packs up the kids and her best friend and sets out on a road trip to pick him up. Sing, Unburied, Sing is set mostly during that trip. Jesmyn Ward tells a beautiful story about family, love, addiction, and the ghosts that haunt us. The relationship between Jojo and Kayla is precious, and the presence of their caring grandparents lends some joy to an otherwise sad novel. I read this book in one day because I couldn’t put it down.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Published in 2018 | Read in 2018
This novel goes back and forth between two timeless. One focuses on Yale, an art gallery director living in Chicago during the mid-1980s. The other is about Fiona, the little sister of one of Yale’s friends, who heads to Paris in the early 2000s in search of her daughter. Yale is presented with an opportunity to acquire an incredible collection of art for his gallery. However, while he’s achieving personal success, his friends are all dying of AIDS, including Fiona’s brother. The Great Believers is a novel about friendship, art, and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. The stories of Yale and Fiona intersect beautifully. If you read and loved A Little Life as much as I did, make sure you read this one, too, as it has a similar tone. It’s a novel that has haunted me ever since I finished it.