Fiction recommendations – novels set in New York

I love to read. When my husband and I made the decision to move to Manhattan, one of the first things I did was choose some books to read to learn a little bit about the City I would be living in. I recently started running a non-fiction book group, and new members often tell me how they only read non-fiction, “you don’t learn anything from fiction so it’s a waste of time” they say. In my opinion they couldn’t be more wrong – they’ve obviously been reading the wrong books!

Visitors should always read the tourist guide for a place they are visiting, before they go, and when they are there. This list (not in any particular order of preference) is my recommendations for non-New Yorkers, and New Yorkers alike, of the books that might just be able to transport you to Manhattan without you even having to get on a plane. Many of them will take you to a different time, as well as a different place. That’s one of the wonderful things about fiction. That and the fact that you can learn so much from it too, without you even noticing how much you are learning. And if you are intending to make the biggest promise of your life to the most important person in the world in Central Park, wouldn’t you want to know a little more about where you really are when you’re doing it?

New York: the Novel – Edward Rutherford
This novel tells the story of New York, from it’s very inception, up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He uses a central core of characters from one major family and a few families surrounding them to show us the rich and fascinating history of this city. Each of the characters’ stories illustrates various social, cultural and political changes in the city. The writer knows his history and also has the ability to weave a gripping story – you’re learning something without even noticing it!

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
This is a quick read, but the main character, troubled teen Holden Caulfield stays with you long after you have finished it. The majority of the novel is set in Manhattan in Winter 1949. The main character wanders the city streets dealing with classic teenage issues of angst, alienation, and rebellion, showing that some things never change.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran-Foer
This is quite a charming book about a slightly nerdy little boy who was very close to his father before he died in the the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The boy finds a key that inspires him to search all around New York for information about what it opens, and as he searches, he learns many things about his father’s life there.


The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

This novel won the 1921 Purlitzer Prize. It is set in the 1870s and the story revolves around couple’s impending marriage, and the arrival of a scandalous woman who may threaten their position in society. The novel is lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century Upper classes lived in this part of the world. This is set around the time that many of the beautiful mansions on the Upper East and West sides were built, and many of them still line the East side of Central Park.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote
In my opinion, not the best work to come from this incredible writer, but the main character, Holly Golightly, is one of New York’s most famous literary creations, so this list wouldn’t be complete without her story. Personally, I find her very difficult to like. She lives on Manhattan’s Upper East in 1943, and makes her living by socializing with wealthy men, who take her to clubs and restaurants, and give her expensive presents and money.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon
This novel won the 2001 Purlitzer Prize, but is set in the years around World War II. The story is about two Jewish cousins ho become very successful in the comics “Golden Age” at that time. The characters spend lots of time in an around New York, and the author paints an excellent picture of what life was like for immigrants in the city at that time.

The Island at the Center of the World – Russell Shorto
The subtitle of this book is The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, so that’s what it’s about, then. The author not a historian, but a writer, so this is quite an easy-to-read history of the 17th century Dutch founding of “New Netherland” in America, of which Manhattan was the center. There is lots of information on the famous people of this time, and the Dutch origins of terms and place names that you will hear of in New York.

I would love to hear what people think of the books I have listed here. And any recommendations from others of novels to read for couples coming to New York to get married in Central Park, to get them in the mood for their trip, or just for people who want to learn more about this incredible city. I intend to post a more Central Park -based non-fiction list tomorrow.

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8 Responses to Fiction recommendations – novels set in New York

  1. jdgarner68 says:

    I read Rutherford’s New York. He’s great isn’t he? The best way to learn history is through author’s like him, because it’s told in a way that sticks with you. You should try Sarum, if you haven’t read it already.

  2. Certainly his New York novel is great, but I must confess to not having read any of his others, just looked up Sarum and it does look good, but can it be as good as Ken Follett’s awesome Pillars of the Earth / World Without End? I would find myself comparing it to that, I think

    • jdgarner68 says:

      That is a tough comparison. I have read several Follet novels, including Pillars of the Earth. He also wrote A Place Called Freedom (I thought was really good). It has been probably twenty years since I read Sarum, but I still think it is one of my top historical fictions. In fact, it kicked off a life-long interest in the history of the British Isles, including the Roman rule on the island, the ancient Druids, etc. I remember being totally engrossed by Sarum. It’s like comparing a vacation to the Adirondacks and one to the Blueridge Mountains. They are similar and different, but they are both great; but I wouldn’t want to stay there for too long. Same with both the authors. I love their books, but when I am done, I wait a bit before I read any sweeping sagas.
      By the way, I plan to read the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Chabon. It was funny and entertaining–a good “light” read.

      • I will give Sarum a read. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything set back home. Follett’s “Fall of Giants” was also great, although obviously a bit more recent history. I’m very much looking forward to book two. And Philippa Gregory is good – now that’s a “light” read 😉

  3. GrayFoxDown says:

    “The Catcher in the Rye is a postmodernist “Huckleberry Finn” set in New York with the city as the Mississippi.

    The film version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” while not faithful to the novel, is far superior to it. One of the few times that I preferred a film over a novel; even though Capote’s work is, in and of itself, just fine.

    “The Age of Innocence” is simply a masterpiece.

    Haven’t read the other books you’ve mentioned.

    • nooo Huck Finn is just a little boy. and on the whole he’s still fairly content, he doesn’t have Holden’s teenage glumness

      and Holly Golightly is just as annoying on film as on paper, in my opinion, but yes, the film is picturesque

  4. TripFiction says:

    It is such a great way to get to know a city, by reading books “set in location”. What a great choice of books you have brought together.
    We recently came to New York and these were the books we had in our bags:
    -city-pick New York by Heather Reyes (editor) collected fiction from authors all about New York
    -A Tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (and it is as good as everyone says!)
    -Ellis Island and City of Hope by Kate Kerrigan give a real backstory to the history of the city (part set in County Mayo, too)
    -Eat the City by Robin Shulman

  5. SPFischer says:

    Thanks for this list. Just downloaded “New York: The Novel” to my Kindle 😀

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