Confession: I had a hard time at first coming up with books for this post.
There are a million books set in NYC, but the New York in my head is the New York of TV and movies: Friends, Castle, pretty much every Nora Ephron film ever made. (I once spent an entire solo vacation pretending to be Kathleen Kelly.) Plus, New York is always changing: every book set there captures a slightly different city, filtered through a different historical era or narrator’s perspective.
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t gather up a handful of books about this beautiful, gritty, bewitching city. So here are my New York favorites for you. Please add yours in the comments!
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I loved this book as a child – dreamy Francie, her hardworking mother and exuberant Aunt Sissy, and the hope and heartbreak of growing up in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn.
The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
I adore this first book in the Melendy series, about four siblings who live in a big, comfortably shabby brownstone with their father and their housekeeper-general, Cuffy. The siblings take turns exploring the city by themselves on Saturdays, and the sense of wonder and independence is exactly right.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsberg
Claudia and her little brother Jamie run away from home – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as one does. When I visited the Met for the first time as an adult, I thought about them sneaking through the halls at night and scrounging coins from the fountain.
Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet’s childhood was so different from mine: a brownstone with a dumbwaiter! Ole Golly! Tomato sandwiches and chocolate egg creams! It all seemed fantastically exotic to me. But Harriet is a New York girl through and through.
Remember Me to Harold Square, Paula Danziger
This fun middle-grade novel is built around a New York scavenger hunt undertaken by three kids – so it contains lots of city trivia. But it’s fast-paced, funny and highly entertaining.
Here is New York, E.B. White
White wrote this long essay in 1949, after the city and the world had been transformed by two world wars. But reading it in the wake of 9/11, it still feels eerily relevant. He evokes so well the combination of hope and possibility and fear, the vibrant rhythm of the city streets. (I found my copy at the Strand, pictured above.)
Act One, Moss Hart
An inside look at the mid-century NYC theatre world from one of the great playwrights. Hart’s voice is wry, witty and warm. (I picked this one up at Three Lives & Co. in the West Village.)
My First New York, various authors
New York is beautiful and brutal, and it glitters with possibility. This collection of about 50 essays captures the dazzling range of New York experiences: gorgeous, bewildering, always exciting. (I bought my copy at Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper East Side.)
Eat the City, Robin Shulman
Despite its reputation as a concrete jungle, NYC teems with food production: gardens, breweries, farms. Shulman explores the city’s history through its food producers, past and present. (Another Strand find.)
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin
Colwin writes with wit and grace about food, love, and tiny New York apartments. I especially love “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.”
Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl
Reichl visited dozens of restaurants as the New York Times food critic, often in disguise. This is a rarefied New York, but it’s so much fun (and mouthwateringly described).
Rules of Civility, Amor Towles
A glittering tale of high society, love and ambition in 1930s New York. Gorgeously written.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin
A razor-sharp, elegantly written imagining of Truman Capote and the circle of wealthy socialite “swans,” notably Babe Paley, who were his darlings in 1950s NYC.
The View from Penthouse B and The Family Man, Elinor Lipman
Lipman writes witty comedies of manners, and these two novels both draw New York in quick, loving strokes.
Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok
Kwok’s novels both feature Chinese-American protagonists struggling to make their way in NYC. She draws the sharp contrasts of New York – enormous privilege next to great poverty; immigrant traditions and the siren call of the new – so well.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
This novel is tragic, moving and sometimes very funny . It is an incredible mosaic of New York: all the lives and the loneliness (and the post-9/11 cocktail of fear, love and loss).
Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
Eilis Lacey emigrates from her small Irish town to Brooklyn in the 1950s, struggling to build a life for herself. This is a lovely evocation of a vanished New York, with a quietly appealing main character.
Bunheads, Sophie Flack
A well-written YA novel about a young ballet dancer in New York – who starts to wonder if the world of ballet is where she truly belongs. Captures the constant possibility that thrums through the city.
Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.
What are your favorite books about (or set in) NYC?
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