The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Even though much of the action takes place on Long Island, at the lavish Gatsby and Buchanan mansions on the North Shore, to me this has always been a novel that revolves around New York City. Like Nick Carraway, who can describe what is happening more clearly by virtue of standing a few feet away, The Great Gatsby manages to capture something essential about NYC from a position of slight remove: ambition, reinvention, the risks and rewards of both. The novel’s descriptions of New York are seared into my memory forever. Every time there is an oppressively hot, humid afternoon in New York, I think of that climactic scene at the Plaza Hotel. Every time I come over the Queensboro bridge, I think of that line describing the view: “the city as seen for the first time.”

The Best of Everything

Rona Jaffe

This is the original Sex and the City, before Candace Bushnell was even born. Even though it was written decades ago, and the novel is about young women in the 1950s, it’s utterly timeless: the story of several friends trying to navigate love and luck in New York, watching their fates diverge over time. It’s Sex and the City, but it’s also Girls, or The Emperor’s Children, or A Little Life. It’s an entire subgenre that I find irresistible. The 1950s gives the story added appeal, too. It has the same midcentury sexiness as Mad Men: the silk gloves and cigarettes, the dimly lit bars after work. There is an unforgettable description of working in a publishing office on a stifling hot summer day, before offices were air conditioned. I was horrified by this prospect. (What it is about the vividness of a hot summer afternoon in New York City novels? It haunts you, I guess.)

The Godfather

Mario Puzo

I will confess that I saw the movie (several times) before I ever read the book. And to be honest, I wondered if there was anything to be gained by reading it. I already knew the story, and I loved the movie. But I was wrong! There was a rich, immersive pleasure to reading the book. If New York is defined by its swagger, The Godfather exposes the dark side of that swagger. It’s a larger-than-life story and a hugely entertaining read, but it also contains essential insights about power: how it seduces, how it corrupts, how carefully it must be handled. In putting together this list, I now realize that each of these novels is a bona fide blockbuster, a cultural phenomenon. But I suppose that is New York in a nutshell. The city is crazy and chaotic, it is in-your-face—so is it any wonder that when a novel manages to capture that energy and do it justice, the book sells like wildfire? 

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

This novel ranges across a wide geography—Las Vegas, Amsterdam—but the early scenes set in New York are the ones that stay with me especially. I remember beginning this book and not being able to move from my seat for the first 50 pages. Tartt accomplishes a great deal in this novel, but I particularly admire the riveting, heartbreaking way she begins the story, with the bombing at the Metropolitan Museum. She executes a very tricky thing: she taps into a collective memory, evokes a collective emotion, without writing about the event itself. In those opening scenes, she captures something essential and terrifying about New York in the post-9/11 era—without ever once invoking 9/11. Because how do you write a novel about something like 9/11 that can ever reflect the enormity of the real thing? You can’t, probably, but you can find a side door; you can find a fictional story that sheds a different kind of light. 

Bonfire of the Vanities

Tom Wolfe

Well, this one is just a blast. It is the New York-iest of all the New York novels on this list, because it is just so much: loud and funny and crass and smart. This is like the novel-length version of the outrageous, provocative, pun-filled headlines in the NYC tabloids, headlines that say things like “Headless Body in a Topless Bar.” It’s another novel that captures a specific era in New York, as The Best of Everything also does. In this case, the era is the 1980s: a time of crazy money on Wall Street and millionaire yuppies, but also resurgent crime and racial tensions. This novel nails the stark contrast of life in New York, taking a reader from palatial residences on Park Avenue to cramped apartments in the Bronx. It is voyeuristic, razor-sharp, bursting with drama—and an absolute classic. 

Related articles