A New York State of Mind…

Last week I came across an article in the Guardian where author Craig Taylor chose his Top Ten books set in New York.

It got me thinking about how much I love books set in New York, despite never having been. There is just something about this iconic, bustling vibrant city that lends itself to literature – from the glamour of Fitzgerald’s 1920s Manhattan to the decadence of Wolfe’s Wall Street, the excitement of the art scene in the 1970s to the modern open streets of Teju Cole – New York is one of the leading literary cities.

This sent me to my bookshelves to see what New York-set books I have in the TBR and I was surprised to find that it was a lot!

Here are a few of the choices that I have.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Not only have I not yet read Breakfast At Tiffany’s, I haven’t even seen the film! In this 1958 novella, a contemporary writer recalls his early days in New York City, when he makes the acquaintance of his remarkable neighbor, Holly Golightly, one of Capote’s best-known creations.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

I read a lot of Morrison during my final year at University but never got round to reading Jazz, which is set in 1920s Harlem and forms the second part of Morrison’s Dantesque trilogy on African-American history, beginning with Beloved (1987) and ending with Paradise (1997)

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing

This noir classic from 1946 is set in the aftermath of the Great Depression and features a detective who is both investigator and quarry.

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities is the 1987 classic satire by Tom Wolfe focusing on the ambition, greed and politics of Wall Street in the 1980s.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could Talk was the fifth novel by James Baldwin, published in 1974 and is a brutal love story set in Harlem in the early 1970s.

Doubt by John Patrick Shanley

Set in the offices of a Catholic school in the Bronx, Doubt is Shanely’s 2004 play that explores a nun who believes a priest has had an inappropriate relationship with a student. It was then turned into an award-winning movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep.

Red At the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Set in Brooklyn, Red At the Bone centres on the coming together of two very different families because of an unexpected teenage pregnancy and moves back and forward in time to explore their family histories.

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

A sprawling novel by Claire Messud set in the publishing world of modern day New York? I’m in!

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Not necessarily a straightforward NY novel, as it takes place in other settings, but I’ve included it because I love a novel about the art world and having bought this just before I started my blog almost 8 years ago, I really need to read it!


I also have some more New York set books on my e-reader which I like the sound of…

Over the next few months I’m going to read some of these. Let me make it very clear, this is NOT another reading challenge, I have enough of those, but I just fancy steeping myself in some of that New York atmosphere for a while!

Are there any of these novels that you would recommend? If you have a favourite New York based novel, do let me know in the comments, or is there another city that you can’t resist in literature?

The 746

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

65 Comments Leave a comment

  1. New York (and London) are my favourite cities, both in the literature and in real life. So I am always happy to get recommendations. The only one from your list I’ve read is The Goldfinch, which wasn’t a favourite of mine. As far as I remember, I haven’t read any NY books recently, but A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is on my wish list.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love books set in New York and Venice. I have categories on my blog for “setting” and see that I have 73 set in NYC! Claire Kilroy’s Tenderwire is highly recommended. I also like John O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8, Patrick McGrath’s Trauma and Pete Hamill’s Forever just to name a few.

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  3. Not to put you off but I struggled with Bonfire of the Vanities. I thought I was going to get a deep insight into New York life and the people in the city but found the black and Latino characters were very, very, very poorly written. I felt like Wolfe had zero interest in them or the area they lived in and was happy to recycle stereotypes while taking shots at people like Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson.

    He’s much more comfortable hanging with cops and rich white people.

    I’m interested in seeing your opinion.

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  4. Oh you have some real treats in store here! I especially love the Capote, Danler, Messud and Tartt. The Hallberg is very good but requires real persistence — I think I recall it’s over 900 pages!

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  5. Rules of Civility is an absolute corker, and Tiffany’s is one of my favourite books and films. Those are the only ones I’ve read from your list. I have the Tartt waiting. I want to read the Baldwin and the Messud.
    A book I loved is Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which I bought in NYC – it’s an exploration of New York through the lives and works of different artists twinned with an examination of loneliness.
    I also enjoyed The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, about siblings who visit a fortune teller and learn the date they are going to die. The novel is about how each one responds to the knowledge.
    I hope you get to New York. It’s a city that lives up to its reputation.

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  6. The Street by Ann Petry is set in Harlem, and it’s quite good. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is also set in Harlem (I’ve read a number of Harlem-set novels). Passing by Nella Larsen, also set in Harlem. Coming this year, I have on my reading list The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster.

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  7. Two books here that I have read are The Big Clock and Motherless Brooklyn. Two very different books. I liked both of them a lot, but I could not figure out how to review Motherless Brooklyn, so I did not try.

    There is also a fantastic film of The Big Clock (from 1948) with Ray Milland and Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Sullivan.

    My favorite books set in New York City are the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. Another favorite setting is San Francisco (and the Bay area).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A nice mix of books. I’d add Brooklyn, The New York Trilogy and one of my favourites, Washington Square. James was such a gifted writer. I hope you get to go to New York one day 🙂 I’m really interested for your take on The Goldfinch. I read it a few years ago.

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  9. I don’t know any of the books on the Guardian list, though I am interested to see a Maeve Brennan story on it, having recently read a novella by her.
    Breakfast at Tiffany’s is fabulous. I saw the film several times before ever reading the book which is different in tone to the film. Definitely recommend though.

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  10. I’ve read surprisingly few books set in NYC for how much of a role it plays in literature – I think my favourite is probably If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson. I’m not much of a YA reader normally but it really grabbed me. I have The House of Mirth and The Beautiful and Damned both on my TBR, though.

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  11. I am an absolute sucker for New York stories.
    I’ve read a few of your picks, and would add Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights series (added bonus of being set in the 80s).
    I loved Sweetbitter and Rules of Civility.

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  12. A few more suggestions for you: the NY novels of Dawn Powell, anything by Chester B. Himes especially his Harlem Cycle books, ‘Brown Girl, Brownstones’ by Paule Marshall set in Brooklyn, Patti Smith’s memoir ‘Just Kids’, and an offbeat suggestion – ‘Winter’s Tale’ by Mark Helprin which is set in an imaginary NY but catches something of the energy, history, and relationship with upstate NY of my former and oft-missed home city.

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  13. The Rules of Civility is great, so it’s good to see it in your list for the future. As for other books with a New York setting, I loved Paula Fox’s novel Desperate Characters and Olivia Laing’s memoir The Lonely City.
    (PS Do you mean the 1920s in your introduction about Fitzgerald’s Manhattan?)

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  14. I was going to comment by saying that I’m the opposite to you in that I’ve visited New York and adored it but have no inclination to read books set in the city. Then I read your list and the suggestions in the comments and now I have a very long list of NY-based books that I really want to read! Opps!

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  15. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker is set in 1900 New York and creates a wonderful atmosphere of time and place, particularly the Jewish Lower East Side (where the Golem ends up) and Little Syria (then near the bottom of Manhattan, where the Jinni escapes from his vessel and finds himself living). After the Golem and the Jinni become friends, they take long walks through other parts of nighttime Manhattan.

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  16. I’ve just read The House of Mirth and remembered that while I was reading it I was thoroughly enjoying being in NY – a good idea for a reading list! I’ve read The Bonfire of the Vanities and thought it was great. It is just about rich, white people, ‘the social x-rays’ of the Reagan years, but I think it does delve inside that set very well.

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  17. Oh my! What a project! I’ve read several on your list and my favorite is probably Breakfast at Tiffany’s but if you read it to the end it is NOTHING like the movie. Still – it’s a deserved classic, Capote wrote so well.

    Motherless Brooklyn is good as are The Goldfinch and The Emperor’s Children. The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe was also quite good but it might be a bit dated now – maybe not though. City on Fire is good – fun.

    The one on your list I want to read is Behold the Dreamers.

    There are so many books about New York -both fiction and nonfiction! Don DeLillo writes some of the best but WInter’s Tale by Mark Halpern is delicious. And from the classics side – Old New York by Edith Wharton or almost anything by her really. And then there are the Harlem books – like Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed – another classic.

    Have fun!!!!

    I’ve been to New York but not for nearly long enough.

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  18. Two of my favourite NY books are by Bill Hayes – Insomniac City (about Oliver Sacks as well) and How We Live Now: Scenes from a Pandemic.
    I also loved The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose and What I loved by Siri Hustvedt

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  19. I don’t seem to be drawn to New York novels like some people are. Not that I *don’t* like them!
    One I read a long time ago that I still recommend to people is Time and Again by Jack Finney.

    Liked by 1 person

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