Books that defined the 2010s

From bestsellers to prize-winners, epic novels to YA classics, here is the fiction that defined the most recent decade.

The 2010s were a period of great transition.

On a surface level, interiors blushed millennial pink, spending time outdoors became aspirational once again, people flocked towards doing things “for the 'gram”, and nearly everyone owned at least something – a pair of sunglasses, an iPhone charger cable, a fork – in rose gold.

But while things may have looked placid, the world was still emerging from the vice-like grip of a global economic recession. The 2010s had austere beginnings, and things didn't entirely get better from there: the election of Donald Trump, a rise in right-wing extremism, Brexit and a refugee crisis and the inescapable reality of the climate crisis.

Against all this, people rallied: in the streets, the Occupy movement emerged in 2011 and came to dominate the decade, setting the tone for the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion movements as people Reclaimed the Night and marched for reproductive, LGBTQ and trans rights, among others. At home, the good-time glamour of the 2000s dissolved, especially as the decade wore on, into a gentler shift towards earnest self-care and a social consciousness that saw a rise in global consciousness.

And we read: we read, and read, and read. Here are 20 books that defined the decade.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (2010)

For a few years at the start of the decade, Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 opus absolutely dominated literary discussion – a huge feat in its own right, but one made all the more impressive given that the furore over his breakthrough novel (2001’s The Corrections) a decade prior had barely died down. Told from multiple perspectives within the Berglund family (and a few without), Freedom was a perfect modern version of the ‘Great American Novel’, a time- and perspective-spanning epic that captivated the world.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James (2011) 

In 2016 a story went viral after explaining that a charity shop in Swansea was turning away copies of E. L. James’ debut novel, so ubiquitous was the book that dominated headlines as the fastest-selling paperback of all time. “Fifty Shades”, as it’s become known, demonstrated an appetite among female readers for erotic fiction that was hidden for decades, as well as the power of fan fiction and self-publishing: before the book was snapped up by publishers, James self-published what had originally started out as Twilight 'fan-fic'. In the process, genres, readers and authors previously snubbed by the establishment took it on and won, making publishing more democratic and open-minded. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

In this wonderful, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Jennifer Egan tells 13 different stories across 13 chapters, interweaving not just its characters but its central theme, too: Time, referred to by one of the novel’s main characters as a “goon” that steals our youth, dreams and potential. Told beautifully and with stunning originality, A Visit from the Good Squad isn’t just about the loss of innocence, but the choices we make. If you’re brave enough to confront yours, do yourself a favour and dig in.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011) 

It’s difficult to believe that so few international publishers wanted to translate Elena Ferrante’s globally bestselling Neapolitan novels, but it’s true: her Italian publisher set up their own, separate publishing house to release My Brilliant Friend in 2012. Other Ferrante novels followed, along with a slow-burn fascination with the anonymous author who, by the mid-2010s, had become publishing’s biggest story. My Brilliant Friend was the first of four novels depicting the female experience and, in particular, female friendship, in a way that was engrossing and novel. With her Neapolitan novels, so-called because of their mid-century setting in working class Naples, Ferrante put female friendship on a literary pedestal previously given primarily to heteronormative relationships – and changed the landscape of contemporary fiction in the process.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)

Among those surprised by the phenomenal, international success enjoyed by Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, none were as taken aback as the author herself. “It’s a profoundly weird book,” Groff told, “and so the fact that I've sold a lot of copies is very strange to me.” Barack Obama would disagree: he named the novel, which worms itself inside the marriage of a Floridian couple, his favourite of the year. Most of the Western arts media joined in the chorus. Fates and Furies is not a thriller, but like Gone Girl – that other totemic book of this decade – it did interrogate the narrative of what a wife is and does, and challenged societal expectations in the process. Groff may not have understood its success, but in the light of the #MeToo movement that followed a couple of years later, Fates and Furies looks particularly prescient.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012) 

Of course, there are the top-line numbers about Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl: the six million copies sold in hardback alone, the film adaptation that would become director David Fincher’s highest-grossing to date, the eight weeks at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list. But the legacy of Flynn’s twisting psychological thriller runs far deeper: her definition of the “Cool Girl” trope, which has become a cultural and gender studies touchstone in itself, leading to some media outlets claiming it “defined the decade”; or the litany of Gone Girl-inspired thrillers that followed, which proved that there were few environments more chilling than the seemingly innocuous suburban home. Gone Girl ushered domestic noir into the mainstream, making space for other bestsellers such as The Girl on the Train (2015) and The Secret Place (2014) in its wake. 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013) 

At 28, Eleanor Catton became the youngest person to ever win the Man Booker Prize – a title she still retains – but that’s not the only reason why The Luminaries was a decade-defining book. At a sprawling 848 pages, this immaculate reinvention of the Victorian novel transported readers to the 19th Century gold rush in New Zealand while deftly playing with a magical-realist twist. While plenty of Victorian-inspired novels have popped up over the past century (2002’s The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber among them), The Luminaries proved it was pertinent for the millennial reader, with similarly set mystical novels such as The Essex Serpent succeeding in subsequent years. By 2016, Bloomsbury launched a new imprint, Raven Books, dedicated to "books with a touch of the dark side".

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019)

Deemed "instantly canon-worthy" upon its release in 2019, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel quickly established him as a one of his generation’s most graceful writers. In The Water Dancer, young Hiram Walker is born into slavery in 1800s Virginia to a white plantation owner father and black mother who was sold when he was young. Although he has an otherwise photographic memory, Hiram cannot remember her – until one day, a vision of her leads to his discovery that he has the power to transport people across vast spaces. A deeply inventive, literary take on science fiction, The Water Dancer brought fantastical modern elements to a tale as old as America itself, bringing the past to urgent, dazzling life.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 magnum opus tells the story of young woman Ifemelu, born and raised in Nigeria but having immigrated to study at a university. She is forced to navigate life in a new country, where she learns for the first time about racism and what it means to be black in a country insidiously defined by whiteness. Astutely told and gorgeously written – it’s also a love story between Ifemelu and her life’s love, Obinze, who she meets early on as a child in Nigeria – Americanah is a modern-day classic.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel was the stuff of excited publishing whispers before it was published, rumoured to have won an advance of $1,000,000; once it was released, this ambitious novel tracing the legacy of the West African involvement in the slave trade became a word-of-mouth, book club-dominating sensation. Gyasi’s deft interweaving of intergenerational narratives of African-Americans breathed life into histories too rarely seen in publishing and put Black narratives into the bestsellers’ chart. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum ahead of a second Civil Rights movement reckoning in 2020, Homegoing continued to prove the vitality of fiction.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (2014)

More than a half-decade before Covid-19 was even a blip on the World Health Organization’s radar, Canadian author Emily St John Mandel was publishing her breakthrough novel, Station Eleven, about life after a fictional pandemic known as ‘Georgia Flu’. That it won the Arthur C. Clarke award the following year spoke to its literary merit: the richness of its characters, the expert world-building, its elegant structuring. That it become ubiquitous again six years later, when the world was tipped into a global pandemic, speaks to its prescience, and cements it as a must-read novel of the 2010s.

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2012)

For those familiar with BookTok, Madeline Miller’s debut – which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2011 – might feel like a novel having a moment a decade after its release. However, the retelling of Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ presumed lover, was huge in the 2010s, too. Miller emerged as the underdog among the Women’s Prize (then the Orange Prize) nominees, but proved her mettle among readers, who bought Song of Achilles in their hundreds of thousands. The book set a precedent for Classical Greek retellings – as evidenced by Pat Barker’s acclaimed Silence of the Girls in 2018.

Autumn by Ali Smith (2016)

Autumn is a slim tome, possibly even considered “quiet” in comparison to some of the record-breaking, best-selling big-hitters on here, but Ali Smith’s bold experiment in the form of the novel can’t be overlooked. Following the success of the award-winning How to Be Both, which was published in two versions – with the front and back halves of the novel switched – in 2014, Smith was determined to write a novel in real time. The quartet that followed, Seasonal, depicted the five turbulent final years of the 2010s, from Brexit through to Covid, with refugee crises, terrorist attacks and the climate catastrophe all reflected through potent domestic happenings. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

Sometimes books grow to become presences beyond the paper. It didn’t take long for the names of the four central characters of A Little Life to get printed on T-shirts, and then worn by a presenter on hit TV show Queer Eye. Hanya Yanagihara’s novel was released to wild critical acclaim and became an international bestseller, its 814 trauma-laden pages – often depicting abuse, violence – and self-harm devoured by readers while fellow authors called it “the long-awaited gay novel”. In time, A Little Life attracted criticism, too – the kind of backlash that arrives for books that ride a certain kind of wave. 

Outline by Rachel Cusk (2015)

In this breathtaking and hugely innovative novel, Rachel Cusk’s nameless narrator meets a stranger on her flight to Athens, where she’s teaching a writer’s workshop. The man goes into great depth about his failed marriages, and the two engage in a fairly one-sided conversation – the first of many with men throughout the novel – about the very nature of life and love. And so goes the rest of the book, the first in a trilogy that includes Transit and Kudos, as Cusk’s protagonist provides a centre – or perhaps, a void? Which seems to be Cusk's intention – around which a world of strangers, who share their thoughts and life stories, orbit.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

This dark but hugely influential 2018 novel follows an unnamed narrator who, dissatisfied with modern life, finds herself increasingly drawn to spending a full year sleeping. Yet, despite opting out of most aspects of modern existence – she is fired from her job and, with the help of pills prescribed by her incompetent psychiatrist and constant Hollywood drivel playing on her VCR, spends as much of each day as possible asleep – she is dragged back into drudgery insistently by her roommate, boyfriend, and her need for more medication. That it struck such a chord in 2018 – and is flying high again after being embraced on BookTok – speaks to the book’s relatability: haven’t we all wished, at some point these last few years, for blissful reprieve?

Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)

Every decade will produce a few ingenues, and in fiction, in the 2010s, Sally Rooney was head and shoulders above her peers. Normal People was not the first novel by the former student who was barely in her mid-twenties when she became a bestseller (Conversations with Friends had been published the year before), but it was the will-they-won’t-they narrative of two kids from different sides of the tracks, Marianne and Connell, that most strongly captivated the reading public. The media declared Rooney the "Salinger for the Snapchat generation" for her sparse, ambivalent prose and disaffected characters. The TV adaptation kept a nation together when lockdown struck two years later and catapulted its actors to stardom. It’s telling that Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, explored the struggles of a young, successful author desperate for quiet connection.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

British author Bernardine Evaristo's eighth novel was also a historic first: the first novel by a Black woman to win the Booker Prize. Not that it should have been a surprise – Girl, Woman, Other is an innovative, experimental novel that leaps between the perspectives of a dozen or so Black women (and one non-binary person) as it constructs an overarching sense of what it means and has meant to identify as one. Deeply British yet wide-ranging and worldly, impressively literary yet utterly readable, Girl, Woman, Other evinced a generation-defining talent working at her absolute peak, and made Evaristo a household name in the UK.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)

Selected as a favourite by Oprah Winfrey’s book club, Barack Obama, and then, most significantly, by the Pulitzer Prize committee a year later, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave in an alternate version of America’s 19th Century South who rides the Underground Railroad – here, an actual rail transit system with real stops and hidden tracks. Part science-fiction (it won the Arthur C. Clarke award, too), part historical fiction, The Underground Railroad commented astutely on America's past and its present – and he’d do it again just a few years later in 2019, when he won another Pulitzer Prize for the novel’s excellent follow-up, The Nickel Boys.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

You might imagine that a story about two teenagers falling in love while one is terminally ill with cancer might not be the most alluring of novels, but John Green’s fourth book – which told exactly that story – was the one that made him an internationally known author. YA had existed before The Fault in Our Stars, of course – and in an established bubble of its own – but Green’s love story of Hazel and Augustus elevated the genre to the literary stronghold. The New York Times was among the myriad outlets to review the book favourably, convincing those adults who wouldn’t normally touch YA to dive into the genre. The Fault in Our Stars showed that YA could tackle serious themes as well as literary fiction, paving the way for BookTok in the process.

Image at top: Victoria Ibbetson / Penguin

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