Wednesday, January 1, 2014

8 Great Books Set in New York City

New York City is one of those places that seem to require a gendered pronoun. It's a city with such a strong identity that it obsesses and preoccupies artists. Many, many writers have buried their hearts in New York, setting their great novels there. Here are eight great novels set in the city so nice, they named it twice. I've left off many great children's books set in New York, like The Cricket in Times Square, Eloise, and Stuart Little

Auntie Mame - Patrick Dennis
This riotously funny novel is based on the life of the author's wildly eccentric aunt, whose passion for fads is outpaced only by her passion for her orphaned nephew. The book chronicles Mame and Patrick's adventures, in which Patrick learns many useful skills, such as how to mix the perfect martini and how to sneak out of prep school in order to take his aunt's pregnant protege for her evening constitutional. A major bestseller when it was published in 1955, it was soon adapted into a fabulous and very successful film starring Rosalind Russell.

Christ in Concrete - Pietro di Donato
One of the great American classics and the only major work of Italian-American literature, Christ in Concrete, written with the inflections and syntax of Italian-American English, tells the story of a family of Italian immigrants who work in the construction industry. The book's immense compassion for the hardships and prejudices immigrants faced when they arrived in this country seeking work is heartrending.This book should be far better appreciated and more widely read.

Time and Again - Jack Finney
Jack Finney's illustrated time travel novel is pure fun and one of the essential New York-set novels. Simon Morley is drawn into a governmental experiment in self-hypnosis as a means of traveling in time and sets out on a mission to solve the mystery of a partially burned letter from 1882. Finney thoroughly enjoys himself setting his characters in the midst of actual historical occurrences, from the burning of the New York World building to the assembling of the Statue of Liberty.

Washington Square - Henry James
James himself underestimated his brilliant novella, the writing style of which is strikingly different from his other major works, tending towards a simpler prose style than the verbose and convoluted manner he adopted typically. Catherine Sloper is one of James's best female characters - she is not beautiful or brilliant or fascinating, but she is extremely complex and James's nuanced portrayal of her embittering disillusionment is a triumph.

Certain Women - Madeleine L'Engle
One of L'Engle's best adult novels, Certain Women interlaces the stories of the biblical King David and an eminent actor obsessed with playing him before he succumbs to a final illness. It is through his daughter Emma that we experience the story, as she grapples with her difficult relationship with her father. L'Engle also wrote a number of young adult novels set in New York, including Camilla and The Young Unicorns.

BUtterfield 8 - John O'Hara
O'Hara's novel (later turned into a film starring a particularly glamorous Elizabeth Taylor) begins with a one night stand between a "happily" married man and Gloria, a promiscuous young woman who, almost in spite of herself, break's every social rule there is, and explores through a variety of perspectives the tumult of New York immediately after Black Tuesday and in the final throes of Prohibition.

Brooklyn - Colm Toibin
Eilis Lacey immigrates to New York in the 1950s, where she works in a department store and studies bookkeeping. Although she is terribly homesick for Ireland, Eilis slowly finds a place for herself in New York. Toibin's pacing is measured and lyrical and his eye for telling detail is impeccable. Though the novel never deviates from a quietly intimate tone, it still manages to address many social issues, from segregation and the immigrant experience to changing sexual norms and the emergence of new forms of popular culture, like television. 

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton
This great novel won Wharton the Pulitzer Prize - the first to be awarded to a woman. Newland Archer, a gentleman and lawyer, is happily engaged to May Wellend, a match that all of upper-crust New York deems brilliant, but his faith in his own feelings is tested when he meets the scandalously divorced Countess Olenska, a woman who could care less what the best families think of her. Other great New York-set novels by Wharton are The House of Mirth and Old New York.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for including "Time and Again", it's one of my all-time faves and a great read. Too bad the sequel was not up to the standard of the original.

    It's not a novel, but it's novel-istic, and if you don't know it, you should: "Here is New York" by E. B. White. Maybe about 50 pages, from 1949. A lyrical, heartfelt view of the great city written by a master.

    Happy New Year! Hope it's a great year for you, and filled with increasingly popular blog posts!