all of my 2020 and 2021 book recommendations

Here’s the complete list of the books I recommended in 2020 and 2021. I’ve bolded my favorites of the favorites.

If you want more, here are my book recommendations from 2023, 202220192018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.


Park Avenue Summer, by Renee Rosen. When Helen Gurley Brown became editor of Cosmopolitan magazine right after publishing her notorious Sex and the Single Girl (a book I stole from my mom and read incessantly as a teen), her plans to sex up the magazine created scandal and she faced aggressive opposition from people (mainly men) who were shocked and outraged by the content she wanted to run. The novel is a fictionalized account of a young woman who moves to NYC in the ’60s and becomes Helen Gurley Brown’s assistant in the middle of all this. It’s fiction, but it’s based what really happened and it’s pretty fascinating.

Dreamland, by Nancy Bilyeau. In 1911, an heiress is pressured into spending the summer at Coney Island with her rich family and her sister’s highly sketchy fiancé. There are murders and intrigue and way too much money.

Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce. Set in London during World War II, it’s about a young woman who hopes to become a journalist but accidentally ends up as the assistant to a ladies’ advice columnist … and begins to secretly write back to letter writers whose troubles the columnist deems too unpleasant to answer.

I Suck at Girls, by Justin Halpern. A very funny book of essays about the author’s dating life from boyhood on, entwined throughout with highly amusing advice from his dad on all aspects of life. (You may know the dad from the author’s viral Twitter account, Shit My Dad Says.)

The Assistants, by Camille Perri. An underpaid assistant to a rich CEO finds a way to use her boss’s expense account to secretly pay off her and her fellow assistants’ student loans. It’s smart and funny and will speak to anyone who’s ever been underemployed or resented their overprivileged boss.

The Chicken Sisters, by KJ Dell’Antonia. Two family-owned restaurants with a century-old rivalry battle it out on a reality TV restaurant competition that ends up bringing out plenty of family drama.

Necessary People, by Anna Pitoniak. Two friends, one rich and one who’s had to work hard for everything she has, find themselves at professional odds when they start working for the same cable news show and it becomes clear one of them only has her own interests at heart.

The Nature of Fragile Things, by Susan Meissner. A young Irish immigrant, miserable in early 20th century New York, answers an ad from a San Francisco man looking for a mother for his young daughter. The man is polite and treats her well, but it soon becomes clear all is not as it seems. I read this all in one (long) sitting and could not put it down.

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism, by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar. This is two sisters, one of them a comedian, writing about the crazy racist things that have happened to the other, and I didn’t know that humor and horror and fury could be combined so effectively. It’s excellent, and if you’re white it’s eye-opening even if you thought you already knew.

We Run the Tides, by Vendela Vida, about a teenage girl’s relationship with an attention-seeking friend. It perfectly captures what it’s like to be a 13-year-old girl — the shifting nature of reality, the blend of the ridiculous and the profound, and the precariousness of friendships.

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, by Marie Benedict. In 1926, the real Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days, claiming on her return that she didn’t know where she had been. This is a fictional explanation for what might have happened, involving her faithless husband and an excellent mystery.

Sorrow and Bliss, by Meg Mason. It’s about family and relationships and the impact of mental illness on both, and it’s funny and snarky and moving.

Girl A, by Abigail Dean. Lex is known in the media as Girl A, who escaped from the house where her parents had kept her and her siblings captive for years. This is about what happened afterwards and how each of them moves forward. It’s heart-wrenching but very good.

A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out, by Sally Franson. An English major working at an ad agency is tasked with convincing authors to sign on to corporate marketing campaigns, as she struggles to decide where her ethical lines are. It’s both funny and serious.

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley. A woman in 1915 decides to escape her life as a spinster living with her brother by roaming the country in a mobile bookstore, selling books as she goes. It’s funny and charming.

Early Morning Riser, by Katherine Heiny. A strangely charming story of Jane; her ladies’ man boyfriend, Duncan; his seemingly perfect ex, Aggie; Aggie’s extremely odd husband, Gary; and the small, too-close-for-comfort town they all live in.

What Could Be Saved, by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz. Two sisters are contacted by a man claiming to be their brother who disappeared decades earlier when they were kids. It alternates between the story of their reunion and what happened to their family 47 years ago, and it’s beautifully written and riveting.

All Girls, by Emily Layden. Told in the voices of many different students at an all-girls boarding school that seems to be covering up an assault, it’s a story about what it’s like to be a teenage girl trying to figure out yourself, friendships, authority, and the world in general.

The Fortunate Ones, by Ed Tarkington. A coming-of-age story in which a young man’s friendship with a son of a wealthy family pulls him into a different world.

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz. A writer whose career is in decline steals an irresistible plot from a student who died shortly after taking his writing class and finds great success with it … but then begins receiving anonymous messages from someone threatening to reveal the theft.

Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau. Fourteen-year-old Mary Jane, who has strict parents with strict ideas about values, gets a summer job nannying for a psychiatrist — who happens to have a rock star patient and his famous wife secretly living with him for the summer. Things are learned by all.

Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz. I’m reading everything by this author after loving The Plot recently. In this one, an admissions officer at Princeton confronts her failing marriage, issues with her mom, and a momentous decision from the past. There are fascinating details about how admissions officers work!

Last Summer at the Golden Hotel, by Elyssa Friedland. As two families who own a historic Catskills resort gather to decide whether to sell it, family drama, dysfunction, and secrets emerge. It’s funny and includes a lot of enjoyable old-timey Catskills nostalgia. (The author’s The Floating Feldmans is also good.)

Home Made: A Story of Grief, Groceries, Showing Up — and What We Make When We Make Dinner, by Liz Hauck. A woman’s account of what happened when she spent one night a week teaching teenage boys living in a state home how to cook.

People We Meet on Vacation, by Emily Henry. Poppy and Alex have been best friends since college and take a trip together every year. On the last one, things Went Awry and now they must fix things. This is like the book version of a really delightful rom-com, and genuinely funny in surprising ways.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift, by Caroline Graham. A detective in a small British village must solve the murder of a kindly 80-year-old woman who saw something she shouldn’t have. This is cozy and delightful, like if Barbara Pym wrote a murder mystery.

Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner. Sylvie has been a perfect politician’s wife for years but when her husband’s affair makes headlines, she and their grown daughters begin to rethink what they want from life.

The Very Nice Box, by Eve Gleichman and Laura Blackett. An engineer mourning her girlfriend develops an unexpected relationship with her new boss at a trendy furniture company … who might not be who he appears. This was an unexpected pleasure and a funny skewering of corporate culture.

Malibu Rising, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Four siblings with a rock star father grapple with fame, family, and the legacy of their parents. And there’s a really big party.

The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan. Four very different women compete in a British wartime cooking competition during World War II.

Friends Like Us, by Lauren Fox, which is about what happens to two close friends when one starts dating the other’s BFF from high school. It is, as you might imagine, about trust and betrayal, but it’s also funny and feels real.

A Good Family, by A. H. Kim. When a wealthy pharma exec is sent to prison, her sister-in-law steps in to help with the kids … and uncovers a string of lies and deception. Much suspense and excitement ensues.

Morningside Heights, by Joshua Henkin. If you’ve learned anything about my taste in books from these weekly recommendations, you might know that I love sweeping family sagas, and this is one. It’s the story of a college professor, his wife, their marriage and children, and how things change as they begin to lose him.

You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Grace Sachs is the author of a book telling women the signs of problems in their partners were there all along, if only they’d paid attention … and then discovers she hadn’t known her own husband at all.

We are the Brennans, by Tracey Lange. A daughter returns home to a family full of secrets, as well as to the man she left years before without explanation. This was like a delicious soap opera.

Send for Me, by Lauren Fox. The story of a young woman in Germany on the brink of World War II, and her granddaughter who finds her letters decades later. Beautifully told.

Under the Whispering Door, by TJ Klune. It’s the latest from the author of The House in the Cerulean Sea (which was my favorite book of 2020) and is about a man who dies, ends up in a tea shop between worlds, and … undergoes some changes. It shares a lot of DNA with his previous book, and I loved it.

Several People Are Typing, by Calvin Kasulke. Told entirely through Slack messages, this is the story of an office, complete with morning meetings, out-of-touch bosses, and a cursed spreadsheet. It’s very funny.

The Second Home, by Christina Clancy. As three siblings try to decide what to do with their family’s summer home on Cape Cod, long-buried secrets are reckoned with.

The Husbands, by Chandler Baker. In a neighborhood of high-powered, accomplished women and their extremely supportive, housework-loving husbands, all is not what it seems.

Small Pleasures, by Clare Chambers. A reporter in 1950s Britain who is investigating a woman’s claim of an immaculate conception finds herself becoming personally entangled in the story.

The Days of Afrekete, by Asali Solomon. A woman throws a dinner party while awaiting her husband’s arrest on corruption charges and contemplating their marriage, her past, and whether she wants the life she’s found herself in.

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. Told in the first person plural, these are the stories of a group of Japanese women who came to America as brides after World War I. Short and powerful.

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Told from the perspective of an “artificial friend” — a highly intelligent robot — who’s selected as the companion for an ill teenager.

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig. A woman finds a library where each book lets her enter a life she would have had if she’d made different choices along the way.

The Last Thing He Told Me, by Laura Dave. A woman’s husband disappears under mysterious circumstances, leaving her alone with her stepdaughter and a series of emerging clues that he wasn’t who he said he was.

Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn. An island’s totalitarian government bans the use of more and more letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial to the town’s namesake.


First, my favorite book of the year: The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune. A caseworker in charge of magical children travels to an island to investigate an orphanage that’s home to six seemingly dangerous magical kids. It’s so good — very Harry Potter-esque, but possibly even better. I love it so much.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A legendary but reclusive actress agrees to write her biography, with a surprising condition.

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of a mom and her baby-sitter and is all about how race and class and privilege mess us up. It’s really, really good.

The View From Penthouse B, by Elinor Lipman. Two sisters, one recently widowed and one recently bankrupted by Bernie Madoff, move in together and try to figure out what’s next … as complications arise in the form of a young boarder and a paroled ex. I keep seeing Elinor Lipman called a modern Jane Austen, and I don’t think that’s far off; she writes wonderful comedies of manners. This one is warm and cozy and funny.

All This Could Be Yours, by Jami Attendberg. A dysfunctional family’s patriarch is on his deathbed, and his daughter struggles with his legacy.

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym. I find Barbara Pym cozy and funny, while my sister finds her depressing. I don’t know what that says about us. In any case, this is the story of Mildred Lathbury, who is leading a quiet, boring life when excitingly modern neighbors move in downstairs and things are thrown into disarray. You should read this while drinking a lot of tea.

Followers, by Megan Angelo. In 2016, two friends seek fame, and find it with unanticipated consequences. 35 years later, the government runs a strictly controlled, 24/7 reality show with stars who can’t leave. This is a dark, utterly engrossing story about technology, fame, and lack of privacy.

My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman. I’m on an Elinor Lipman kick. This one is about a teenager raised on a college campus where her parents work, and what happens when her father’s glamorous first wife arrives on the scene.

Saint X, by Alexis Schaitkin. Claire is seven when her sister disappears. Two decades later, she encounters one of the men believed responsible — and begins a quest to understand what happened and what it cost everyone around her. This is so beautifully written it’s painful.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel Lavery) of The Toast and Dear Prudence, whose writing is always a delight. This is the story of his transition, and it’s funny and smart and moving and goes in directions you don’t expect. Highly recommended.

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, about a lonely 15-year-old who becomes involved with her teacher and later struggles to understand the relationship as abuse. It’s disturbing and hauntingly written and kept me up reading until 5 am, which is a problem but also a strong endorsement.

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. In 1930s New York, a typist gets drawn into the city’s social elite. An enjoyable distraction.

Last Couple Standing, by Matthew Norman. When all their friends get divorced, a couple tries an ill-judged experiment.

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. This story of two siblings weaves all around, from dance clubs to a remote hotel in Canada to a Madoff-like scandal. There’s vulnerability and magical realism and meditations on money and beautiful writing. It’s very different from her earlier Station Eleven (do not read that right now), but it put me in a sort of trance and I liked it.

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s the story of a woman born in 1800 to a wealthy family, and I have no idea how to capture what it’s actually about so I’m going to quote from an NPR review to explain its breadth: “Gilbert covers how to smuggle plant clippings to foreign buyers; the vulgarities of professional sailors; Cicero; Captain Cook’s being hacked to death; varietals of vanilla pods; a sky-high waterspout; abolition and poverty; Euclidean gardening; sodomy and self-pleasuring; what the Dutch serve at tea-time; and what a rugby-like, women’s-only Tahitian sport can tell us about the animal kingdom. (To name just a few.)” Which still tells you nothing of what it’s actually about, but it’s good, and long.

Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler. A socially oblivious IT guy who holds himself at a bit of a remove finds his life increasingly complicated.

The Inn at Lake Devine, by Elinor Lipman. A Jewish teenager in the ’60s begins a decades-long fixation on a Vermont inn and the family that runs it (including an anti-Semitic mother and two intriguing sons).

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, by Janelle Brown. A mother and two daughters, all with secrets of their own, spend a summer grappling with family drama.

Pretty Things, by Janelle Brown. I’m now working my way through all her books. This one is about an influencer and a thief, their history together, and what happens when their paths cross again. It has revenge and dark plans and twists, and it will make you sympathize with people you don’t expect to sympathize with.

The Other Bennet Sister, by Janice Hadlow. The story of Mary Bennet, the plain, seemingly stick-in-the-mud sister from Pride and Prejudice. I usually don’t like retellings but I loved this one, and you will never look at any of the Bennet sisters the same way again. (In fact, even Mr. Collins becomes sympathetic here, which is quite an achievement.)

All Adults Here, by Emma Straub. This is a story about the messiness of families, as all Emma Straub’s novels are: a grandmother who rethinks her life when she sees an acquaintance get hit by a bus, a teenager granddaughter who comes to live with her after an upsetting incident at school, the friend she makes in her new town, and a web of family members all intertwined.

We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas. A long family saga (the best kind) about love, loss, and the American dream. Every character in here frustrated me at some point, but that made them more real.

The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild. A famous lost painting is found and spurs drama, mystery, romance, and dirty dealing.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. Twin sisters run away together from their small town founded by and for light-skinned black people. One returns later with her daughter, while the other builds a new life passing for white, cutting off ties to her family to keep her secret. It’s about race and identity and home, and I loved it.

Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson. An 18-year-old sleeps with her teacher, gets pregnant, and becomes part of a scientific project studying what happens when 10 families raise their children collectively. It turns out that planned utopias have as much dysfunction as anywhere else. (He also wrote the wonderful Nothing to See Here.)

Carrie Pilby, by Caren Lissner. A former child prodigy hits adulthood and struggles to connect with people. It’s quirky and charming.

Friends and Strangers, by J. Courtney Sullivan, the story of the relationship between a woman struggling in a new town and the college student she hires to babysit. It takes on money and class and parenthood, and both women are painted so vividly that you’ll miss them when you’re finished with it.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. A very amusing but penniless family lives in a crumbling castle in 1930s England, but everything changes when two rich American brothers become their new landlords. It’s delightfully written. How had I never read this before? I now love it with all my heart.

Family and Other Accidents, by Shari Goldhagen. It follows two brothers left on their own after their parents die, and their relationships with the women in their lives over decades. I loved it, although be warned there’s a jarring number of sex scenes that, to me, felt oddly discordant with the rest of the book.

America for Beginners, by Leah Franqui. A widow leaves India to tour America and find out what happened to her estranged son. I loved it.

The Comeback, by Ella Berman. A former teen star grapples with her relationship with the man who made her famous and controlled her for years.

Luster, by Raven Leilani. A woman struggling with her 20s falls into an affair with a married man in an open marriage but ends up connecting with his wife and daughter instead. This will make you so glad to be done with your 20s, if you are. (And if you’re not, my sincere condolences to you.)

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley. A man rescues a young boy after the plane they’re on goes down, and when the boy turns out to be the only surviving member of a rich and powerful family, questions are raised about what really happened on board. This is not my usual fare, but it kept me totally engrossed.

One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London. A friend recommended this and I was skeptical, but it’s very enjoyable: It’s about the first plus-sized contestant on a Bachelorette-like show, who is rightly cynical about the show but agrees to go on to help her brand, and what happens. It skewers some of the worst parts of reality TV and talks more honestly than you often see about weight.

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby. A woman whose rather ridiculous boyfriend is obsessed with a reclusive musician secretly connects with said musician online and things ensue.

The Two-Family House, by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Two very different brothers, their wives, and children share a two-family house in the 1940s and 50s, and the sisters-in-law, once close, are driven apart by a secret.

With or Without You, by Caroline Leavitt. After awakening from a coma, a woman discovers that her life — and she herself — have changed.

Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption. This is a compilation of essays from the New York Time’s Modern Love column, and it is excellent for nights when you need something that will take you exactly 10 minutes to read before you fall asleep.

Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Away at boarding school, a teenager feels like an outsider. It’s about money and class and identity, and it feels real.

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam. A family vacationing in a remote area and the owners of the house they’re staying in get trapped when a mysterious global disaster strikes. It starts as a vacation novel, but it decidedly is not one. I don’t normally enjoy dread, but this sucked me in.

The Expectations, by Alexander Tilney. A teenager and his roommate each struggle in different ways to navigate an exclusive prep school. There’s lots in here about class and privilege, and how weird adolescence is. In many ways, this is the cousin of Prep.

The Smart One, by Jennifer Close. A tale of two sisters who both find themselves living back at home, their lives not working out as they’d planned.

Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork, by Reeves Wiedeman. OMG, y’all. If you like real-life stories of terrible management and the downfall of hubris, you will be so fascinated by this story of what happened at WeWork. (Think of all the start-up horror stories you’ve ever heard and then multiply them by 10; they’re in this book.) Along similar lines, if you haven’t yet read Bad Blood, about the massive fraud at Theranos, read that too.

Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh. After several years of silence, the author of Hyperbole and a Half (and the blog by the same name) is back! Her new book is full of illustrated stories about her childhood, her family, dogs, and the harder stuff she’s always so willingly tackled like loss and grief. It’s moving and funny and powerful, as her stuff always is.

Cobble Hill, by Cecily von Ziegesar. It’s about four families — including a former rock star, a school nurse, a renowned but struggling novelist, a performance artist, and their spouses — and how their lives intersect in unexpected ways. Not a lot happens but it’s fun.

Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan. Another epic family saga, this one told from alternating points of view and about two sisters who leave Ireland for America. Estranged for years after arriving, one raises a large family while the other becomes a cloistered nun. It’s about family, secrets, and how decisions when you’re young can shape the course of your life in ways you never expect.

Mother Land, by Leah Franqui. An American newlywed in India tries to adjust to her mother-in-law moving in with her.

The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman. This is the fourth Elinor Lipman book I’ve recommended this year, because I love her — when you want something light and sparkling but still smartly written, she’s perfect. In this one, a lonely lawyer reconnects with his formerly estranged step-daughter, who has been hired by a PR firm to pose as the girlfriend of a famous actor. It’s funny and sweet and just the right amount of zany.

Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots. It’s about a woman who works very boring temp jobs … for super villains. There are a lot of details that will be familiar to anyone who thinks about work a lot (a villain who is way too interested in how people are feeling, coworker tensions, worries about health insurance …), all of which become very amusing in a “working for villains” context, and you will be deeply invested in some surprising characters by the end of it. One of my favorites of the year.

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