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We Contain Multitudes: New York City Represented in 10 Novels

While New York City covers only three hundred and four square miles, its five boroughs contain millions of people from a multitude of cultures and walks of life. It is from the particularity of these diverse experiences that the best novels about New York come. Jay McInerney is famous for bringing the city to life in his novels. He’s done that once again in Bright, Precious Days, continuing the story of the Calloways and painting a rich portrait of their lives in the years following 9/11. The novel is glamorous yet heartbreaking, with downtown dinner meetings and extramarital affairs, but also manages to get to the heart of human relationships and the realities of city life.

McInerney is one of the New York’s important chroniclers, but his novels are just one angle from which to view this sprawling metropolis. One can spend years reading only about New York and never encounter the same story. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of novels that explore (just a few!) of its many sides. From the distinct visions of Harlem in Jazz by Toni Morrison and Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, to the Lower East Side of the friends in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and all the way to the cloistered world of the Hasidic Jewish communities in Brooklyn in My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, this list has a little bit of everything. It illuminates the wide variety of cultures and stories in the Big Apple and provides a fruitful starting point for planning your own book club’s foray into that particular genre of the “New York novel.”

Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney

“McInerney is the writer who is funniest and most precise about the view from New York City.” —Harper’s 

The third book in McInerney’s celebrated Calloway series, Bright, Precious Days is an aching, extraordinary portrait of a marriage and a city during a period of dizzying change.

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cityCity on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

“A novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

An unforgettable novel about love and betrayal and forgiveness, about the grit of the city in the 1970s, about art and truth and rock ’n’ roll: about what people need from each other in order to live. . . and about what makes the living worth doing in the first place.

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lifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Spellbinding. . . . An exquisitely written, complex triumph.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

A Little Life follows four college classmates—broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition—as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune.

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fortressThe Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

“Magnificent. . . . [A] massively ambitious, profoundly accomplished novel.” —San Francisco Chronicle

From the National Book Critics Circle Award–winning author of Motherless Brooklyn comes the vividly told story of Dylan Ebdus growing up white and motherless in downtown Brooklyn in the 1970s.

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goGo Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

“With vivid imagery, with lavish attention to details, Mr. Baldwin has told his feverish story.” —The New York Times

In this American classic, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March 1935.

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jazzJazz by Toni Morrison

“A brilliant, daring novel.”—Chicago Tribune

This passionate, profound story of love and obsession brings us back and forth in time as a narrative is assembled from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of black urban life.

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asherMy Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

“A novel of finely articulated tragic power.” —The New York Times Book Review

Asher Lev grows up in a cloistered Hasidic community in postwar Brooklyn, a world suffused by ritual. As it follows his struggle, My Name Is Asher Lev becomes a luminous portrait of the artist, by turns heartbreaking and exultant, a modern classic.

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asherSag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

“Weaves a spell that is by turns enchanting, mood-shifting, and side-splitting.” —Elle

From the Pulitzer–Prize winning author of The Underground Railroad: a tender, hilarious, and supremely original novel about coming of age in the eighties during a summer spent in Sag Harbor, where a small community of African American professionals have built a world of their own.

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empThe Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

“A masterly comedy of manners. . . . Splendid.” —The New York Times Book Review

The Emperor’s Children is a richly drawn, brilliantly observed novel of fate and fortune—about the intersections in the lives of three friends, now on the cusp of their thirties, making their way—and not—in New York City.

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netherlandNetherland by Joseph O’Neill

“A resonant meditation on the American Dream.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

In a New York City made phantasmagorical by the events of 9/11, and left alone after his English wife and son return to London, Hans van den Broek stumbles upon the vibrant New York subculture of cricket.

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