I wasn’t very familiar with Boston when I moved here. I had visited once, as a college student, and I knew it had played a key role in the American Revolution and that Bostonians harbored a bizarre passion for the Red Sox. (See below.)
Naturally, I began reading everything I could get my hands on about the city, the area and its (rich, layered, deeply convoluted) history. And I have found some truly wonderful books about this gorgeous, frustrating, complicated place.
Here are my top picks:
Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay
Kalotay’s gorgeously written first novel explores the career of Nina Revskaya, a former Soviet ballerina who chooses to sell off her jewelry collection. Both Nina and her jewelry harbor a number of secrets, and Kalotay unravels them in luminous prose. Set partly in Boston’s Back Bay, it was one of the first Boston novels I read after moving here, and it evokes the neighborhood perfectly. (Kalotay’s second novel, Sight Reading, is also partly set here.)
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Howe’s novel is a delicious blend of history, ghost story and self-discovery. Graduate student Connie spends the summer in her grandmother’s house in Salem (north of Boston, site of the notorious witch trials). The plan is to get it ready to sell, but Connie discovers a trove of family history that grabs her and won’t let go. Slightly creepy (perfect for October, when I read it) and so compelling. Howe’s second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass, is also set in Boston.
The Secret of Sarah Revere by Ann Rinaldi
I found this (rather obscure) YA novel at a library book sale not long after moving here. It gave me a window into a critical piece of the American Revolution through the eyes of Sarah Revere, daughter of Paul, and was one catalyst for my Boston book obsession.
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Brooks writes sweeping, richly detailed historical fiction, and this novel (inspired by a true story) follows a young Native American man who attended Harvard in the 17th century. It tells of a very different Boston and Cambridge than the one I know, but the new has its roots in the old, of course, and this is a glimpse of a fascinating slice of history.
Tiny Little Thing by Beatriz Williams
I love Williams’ deliciously scandalous novels about the Schuyler family, and this one has some gorgeously rendered scenes in Boston and also on Cape Cod. (I also adore Christina, the narrator.) A book to sink into (and then you’ll want to read all Williams’ other books).
Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick
No one does New England history like Philbrick (he wrote Mayflower, In the Heart of the Sea and Away Off Shore, among others). Bunker Hill tells the story of the famous battle, in the context of the colonies’ desperate struggle for freedom. John Adams and his family are key players in this story, and I live just a few miles from their houses, so I found it particularly fascinating. Well-researched and highly readable. (Bonus: this is the book that started my first conversation with my librarian friend Shelley – on an airplane a few years ago!)
Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin
This memoir was my favorite book of 2015 – a gorgeously written, pithy, fascinating account of a woman who becomes a carpenter’s apprentice. MacLaughlin lives and works in Boston, and she vividly describes streets and neighborhoods that I know. An insightful window into the culture of this place, plus a wonderful meditation on how to build a good life.
As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, ed. Joan Reardon
These letters cover so many topics: food, marriage, the Foreign Service, Paris (of course) and various other exotic locales. But they are full of Boston, where Avis lived and Julia eventually moved. Sharp-eyed, often funny and utterly fascinating.
And, of course, no Boston book list is complete without Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. I have a deep love for those ducklings – in book and statue form – and every spring I delight in watching their real-life counterparts quack and swim their way around the Public Garden.
Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.
What are your favorite books set in Boston? I’m always looking for new gems to add to the list.
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