Manhattan is a literary hub. Generations of aspiring writers have moved to the city with high hopes. They wrote, drank, and succeeded, failed, or fell somewhere in between all across the grid-like streets of the island. It’s an inspiring city full of history and intrigue. It’s romantic at times but can lead to heartbreak in an instant. The city is mysterious, and for those who have a desire to learn more about it through the eyes of others, these books will certainly satisfy.
The Valley of the Dolls. A cult classic, published in 1966 by Jacqueline Susann, became a quick bestseller and remains one of the best selling books of all time. This book tells the story of three women who are making their way through the drugged haze that was New York City in the 1960s. Extremely dark and damaging at times, it is a raw depiction of their lives over a span of 20 years. The novel will give you a glimpse into a time in New York City that has since been lost. Live vicariously through these three women—Anne, Jennifer, and Neely—to experience Manhattan in the 60s. The book has since been honored with film and TV adaptations.
Soledad: A Novel. Published in 2002, this novel tells the story of a specific group of people living in Washington Heights, a section of New York City north of Harlem, in the 1990s when the majority of the population in that area was struggling Dominican immigrants. This novel, by Angie Cruz, is an extremely detailed account of one neighborhood in the entirety of New York City, and yet she makes it feel as if Washington Heights is its own world and the characters of her story are the only inhabitants. The plight of the main character, Soledad, is real and her return to the family she wanted to leave behind is one that many can relate to. Cruz’s inclusion of magical realism is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, making this novel imaginative and realistic all at once.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A novella of just over 100 pages, this is a true classic that has garnered more fans of Audrey Hepburn than it has of its author, Truman Capote. However, this little book outshines the movie adaptation (sorry). You are able to see New York City through the eyes of a writer and you are introduced to one of literature’s quirkiest and most infamous female characters, Holly Golightly. The narrator, “Fred”, details what life in a New York City brownstone is like and the curious character of Holly is endearing and frustrating. No one can deny the genius that is Truman Capote and, given that and the length of this text, there is no reason for anyone to skip it!
The Great Gatsby. A given, of course. Last summer was the summer of Gatsby, thanks to the new Leo DiCaprio movie, but if you saw the movie and never read the book, now is the time! While most of the story takes place on Long Island, the characters frequently venture into the big city and the excess and luxury of Manhattan easily drips into the lives and storylines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s infamous characters. The story takes place post-war, during the Jazz era, one of New York City’s most intriguing and dreamlike times and it is perfectly illustrated by Fitzgerald. Daisy, Nick, and Gatsby will remain strong in your mind years after reading this powerful yet short novel.
The Catcher in the Rye. Another classic that many people read in high school but continues to carry weight to readers at any age. This story is the depiction of a youth growing up in New York City and the tribulations that come from life in the city. Many people will see themselves in the main character, Holden Caulfield, and will sympathize with his struggles. The descriptions of the labyrinth of Central Park are reason enough to read this story, but the powerful and evocative voice of the narrator will keep all readers glued to the page. It’s not only a unique point of view of Manhattan, but an accurate tale of the difficult parts of young adulthood.
The House of Mirth. Edith Wharton knew New York City before the skyscrapers, traffic jammed streets, and food carts crowded the island. She knew a New York society that one can now only see in Hollywood films. Her novel, published in 1905, centers on Lily Bart, a society girl who is about to lose her standing, her money, and the only world she knows. The book touches on sexual politics and social standards in a way that is oh so New York. There is no better way to delve into the carriage rides and fancy lifestyles of 19th century Manhattan than through reading this book.
The Interpreter. This novel by Suki Kim is a look into the lives of a very specific population of people in New York City. It focuses on the lives of Korean immigrants and their Korean-American children who struggle to balance their Korean traditions and life in a very different culture. The main character is a 29 year old girl who is sucked into the mystery of her parents’ murder, which she tries to solve while balancing tumultuous love affairs and a job in the New York City court system as a court interpreter for her fellow Koreans. The specific scope of this text lends great insight into a world and a struggle that many do not notice as they walk through the streets of downtown Manhattan.
Push. Another novel, by Sapphire, that has been honored with a widely known and highly regarded film version—Precious—gives a devastating portrayal of a teenage girl living through poverty, abuse, and disease in New York City. Written in the vernacular of its main character, this book will put you into the life and mind of Claireece Precious Jones. This book is incredibly difficult to read at times but has so much power and influence to change what you think. Everyone should read this to understand the disparity between Manhattan’s ultra-wealthy and Manhattan’s devastatingly impoverished population.
Let The Great World Spin. This novel was author, Colum McCann’s, answer to a post-9/11 text. It takes places decades earlier, in 1970s New York City but McCann seamlessly weaves in the World Trade Center and the sensation all New Yorkers experienced following their attack. The novel focuses on multiple protagonists and narrators who are incredibly different but are linked together by the city. By using multiple characters, the reader is able to learn about life in Manhattan through different perspectives that include the highs, the lows, and the ordinary. This novel has garnered extreme praise and its profile of New York City, both then and now, is unparalleled.
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