Attention, literary fiction lovers! Be prepared to be swept away with these gorgeous literary books that need to go on your to-read list immediately.
What is the difference between good fiction books and literary fiction masterpieces?
As opposed to general fiction, literary fiction works contain serious literary merit. Instead of just entertaining, literary books focus on relationships more than plot and specifically set out to address major themes throughout the book.
However, don’t assume that all literary books are too highbrow for you. The best literary fiction blends plot and story with character development to envelope you in an unforgettable work of art.
From the best literary books of all time to the top literary fiction 2021, you’ll find plenty of amazing literary fiction books to read this year.
Best Literary Fiction of All Time
An unforgettable story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy Afghan boy and the son of his father’s servant that beautifully describes love, friendship, betrayal, and redemption. Be warned that the novel is violent and graphic at times, so understand that while moving, the story is dark and disturbing. It’s that contrast between the worst of human nature and the best that truly brings out a remarkable tale that will stay with you for a long time.
Growing up in a Southern Black community obsessed with skin color, the Vignes sisters run away at age sixteen. Though identical twins, their lives end in completely different paths. One returns to live in their hometown while the other secretly passes as white. A fascinating story from beginning to end, Bennett explores more than race, as she contemplates how the past affects future generations when their daughters’ lives intersect. Nuanced and complicated, this thought-provoking book is just what you want out of literary fiction and every bit deserving of its spot among the best literary books.
A modern Greek tragedy, Donna Tartt’s debut novel details the moral fall of a group of students at a private Vermont college. Classics professor Morrow only admits a handful of select students to study Ancient Greek. After determinedly breaking into this close-knit group, Richard Papen is surprised to find a world of highly flawed characters losing their grasp on morality. Secrets, lies, betrayal, and eventually murder become justifiable actions as they slip further and further in their descent into evil.
For all you Downtown Abbey lovers out there, this book is meant for you. Stevens, an old English butler (à la Mr. Carson) decides to take a vacation and contemplate his many years of service and his unrealized love for the former housekeeper. A thoughtful portrayal of the importance of balancing personal and work lives, The Remains of the Day is one of the best books to read if you love thoughtful literary fiction.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
In post-World War II Spain, Daniel receives a copy of the only surviving copy of the book, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. When Daniel embarks on a quest to discover more of Carax’s history, he encounters a man determined to conceal everything about Carax. Books like this one remind me why I never want to write fiction; I could never come close to his exquisite use of the written word.
After the fall of the United States, the theocratic patriarchal society Gilead is now in power. Due to an epidemic of infertility, most of the elite women cannot have children. Instead, they use handmaids, women of the lower caste forced to submit to men to bear children. The Handmaid’s Tale is written as the diary of one such handmaiden, Offred, as she struggles to survive in a brutal society, hoping to one day escape.
Literary Fiction Books 2021
From the author of All the Light We Cannot See comes an ambitious new work of literary fiction. Doerr’s novel toggles between three timelines – the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, present-day Idaho, and interstellar ship far in the future. Each piece explores the power of stories as a fictional ancient Greek comedy weaves throughout the entire book. The awe-inspiring power of the written word that Doerr evokes in every sentence will be appreciated by literary fiction lovers.
In Piedmont, North Carolina, a county initiative to bring Black kids from the west side of town into a predominantly white school on the east side sparks fierce debate. To help with the integration, the school puts on a play which Gee and Nicole both join. Both of their mothers are determined that their daughters get the best in life, consequently leading to choices that will last decades.
As the Civil War comes to an end, George and Isabelle Walker hire two newly freed slaves, brothers Landry and Prentiss, to work on their farm. The brothers hope to earn enough money to go North to find their mother while the Walkers hope this unlikely friendship will assuage the grief at the death of their son. When two returned Confederate soldiers’ forbidden romance is revealed, chaos breaks out and Isabelle emerges as a leader with an inspiring vision for their Southern town.
Inti Flynn arrives in Scotland with one purpose – to reintroduce gray wolves into the highlands despite the fierce resistance from the local population. When a farmer is mauled to death, Inti buries the evidence, terrified the locals will accuse her beloved wolves. But if the wolves aren’t to blame, who caused his death? And will it happen again? One of the best literary books of the year, this hauntingly beautiful novel about healing from trauma – in people and in nature – will hook you from the beginning.
Talia is desperate to get out of a Colombian correctional facility for teenagers to meet her father who is waiting with a plane ticket to the United States. Infinite Country tells the story of Talia’s family. Her parents, Mauro and Elena, come to the US on a work visa and then must decide whether it’s worth the risk to overstay their visa. A daughter of Colombian immigrants, Patricia Engel brings to life the hard decisions faced by mixed-status families in one of the top fiction books of 2021.
Recent Literary Books
Shortly after World War II, a real estate mogul buys The Dutch House, a lavish estate outside of Philadelphia. This purchase changes everything for his children, Danny and Maeve – driving out their mother, and leading to Cyril’s remarriage and their exile from the house by their stepmother. A story of the bond between siblings, The Dutch House warns of the dangers of obsessive nostalgia.
In an award-winning piece of literary fiction, Maggie O’Farrell imagines the life of William Shakespeare’s wife. Since almost everything about her is forgotten to history, O’Farrell has free reign in imagining Agnes as a fierce and misunderstood woman, who marries a poor Latin tutor, the son of a disgraced businessman. While flashing back to Agnes and William’s past, the crux of the story focuses on the death of their son Hamnet, showing the endless depths of grief of a mother who loses a child and imagining how Hamnet’s death influenced Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet, written just four years later.
Richard Powers was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this innovative literary fiction novel. Simulating the growth of a tree, Powers breaks with traditional formatting and arranges his work in interlocking segments. You start with short stories about nine different characters and then watch as their stories interweave together in a novel that explores humankind’s relationship with nature.
In post-World War II Japan, Nori, the illegitimate daughter of a Japanese aristocrat and a Black American GI, is hidden away on her grandmother’s estate to conceal the family shame. All Nori knows is the attic she is confined to until she meets her legitimate half-brother, Akira, a boy who shows her the world contains so much more. A clear winner among the best literary fiction books of 2020, this complicated story about shame and the need for acceptance would be a perfect choice for any book club.
In 1969, a grouchy old deacon named Sportcoat walks into the courtyard of a housing project in Brooklyn and shoots the local drug dealer. Thus ensues the story of the lives impacted by the shooting: the victim and the cops, the minority residents and white neighbors, the deacon and the church members. With a unique cast of characters (all with unique names), McBride showcases a character study of 1960s New York.
William Kent Krueger
In 1932, young orphan Odie O’Banion lives as one of the one white boys at the Lincoln School, a home for Native American children. A mean-spirited superintendent, who cares little for the children and especially loathes Odie, rules the school. One summer night, Odie flees the school in a canoe, along with his older brother, their best friend Mose, and a newly orphaned little girl. Thus sets up a river journey reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn.
Great literature makes you rethink your assumptions, and the story of a woman pondering the events that sent her down a radical path and landed her in prison will do just that. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugees, Nahr has not had an easy life. Jilted by her husband, she becomes a prostitute to provide for her family. After being driven out of Kuwait when the US invades Iraq, Nahr resettles in Palestine, where she finally finds a home. A poignant tale for our times, Against the Loveless World hints at the grim realities of Palestinian life and highlights the combination of poor choices and awful circumstances that influence our lives.
Best Literature Books For Book Clubs
In his bestselling allegorical novel, Paula Coelho tells the story of a young Andalusian shepherd who sets out on a journey through the Egyptian desert to find a treasure he saw in a dream. Along the way, he meets various characters who point him in the right direction, until he finally realizes the treasure he seeks is within. Full of insightful comments on life, The Alchemist is one of those literary books that are simple yet profound.
At first glance, newlyweds Celestial and Roy seem like the perfect American couple. He’s a young executive, and she’s an emerging artist. However, as life comes into play and Roy is unjustly imprisoned, their marriage begins to fall apart. Discussing love, marriage, and race, this thought-provoking piece of adult literature is among my favorite of Oprah Winfrey’s book club recommendations.
Mary Beth Keane
NYPD cops Francis and Brian happen to move next door to each other in the suburbs. Though their children Kate and Peter become the best of friends, Francis and his wife have learned to keep their distance from Brian’s wife due to her precarious mental health. When tragedy strikes between the two families, Brian’s family moves away in shame. But when Kate and Peter fall in love, the two families must learn to confront the tragedy that ties them together. A story of love and forgiveness, Ask Again, Yes serves up the perfect blend of family drama and character study to win a place among the best literary books to read.
Without warning, Le Cirque de Rêves arrives in town, a circus that only operates at night. Within its walls are two competing magicians, Celia and Marco, bound together in a high-stakes challenge. When they fall in love, a love so magical it affects the world around them, their dangerous game becomes even more precarious. From the first page to the last, Morgenstern will captivate you with her seductive and mysterious prose.
Set in a Portuguese community in Massachusetts, young Hallie Costa forms a lifelong bond with Gus Silva after the murder of his mother. One of the best literary books about love, the story follows them through the ups and downs of their lives – examining the balance between the good and evil that lives within each of us. Patry Francis will leave you feeling hope for the future and make you reconsider the true meaning of soul mates.
In 1959, Baptist preacher Nathan Price moves his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo as missionaries. Expecting to civilize the locals, they instead realize they are calamitously unprepared for post-colonial Africa. Over the next decades, the Price family finds themselves completely changed by their experiences.
Historical Fiction Literature Novels
An outcast among her fellow Africans, Cora finds life as a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia particularly hard. When Caesar, a new arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, the two hatch a plan to escape. Yet in their efforts, Cora kills a young white boy and the two are furiously hunted as they journey to freedom in the North.
In the Bible, the Book of Genesis tells the story of Jacob, who worked seven years for his wife Rachel but was tricked to marry her sister Leah. Diamant casts a different view of the story of Jacob and his four wives. Told in the voice of Jacob’s daughter Dinah, The Red Tent shows ancient Hebrew life from a woman’s perspective, imagining a fierce woman caught up in a patriarchal society.
Growing up in the community of Jewish refugees on St. Thomas, Rachel has always dreamed of adventure. Married off to a widower with three children, Rachel feels trapped in her small life. When her husband dies, his handsome nephew Fréderick arrives from Paris to settle the estate. Thus begins a passionate love affair that will shock the Jewish community and lead to the birth of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.
In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by the Bolsheviks and sentenced to spend the rest of his life on house arrest. Thus the wealthy count is forced to move from his suite at the Metropol, a grand hotel across from the Kremlin, to a servant’s room in the attic. Over the ensuing decades, he witnesses Russia’s tumultuous history from his window and must ponder what it means to be a man of purpose. This glorious literary fiction novel is one you’ll want to read slowly, savoring every word.
Sue Monk Kidd
On her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimke is given a slave, Handful, as her present. As they grow, both Sarah and Handful strive to find greater meaning in their lives. Based on a true story, Sarah Grimke eventually became one of the pioneers of the women’s abolitionist movement. While Handful was a real slave, her story is more fictionalized, but still incredibly powerful.
Literary Fiction Recommendations
Luck has never been on the side of Oscar, a kind but severely overweight Dominican nerd who dreams of finding love. Living in the ghetto in New Jersey with his strict mother and rebellious sister, he blames a family curse for his luck. For generations, his family has been plagued by prison, tragic accidents, and ill-fated love stories.
In eighteenth-century Ghana, half-sisters Effia and Esi are born into two different villages. While Effia is married off to a wealthy Englishman, Esi is captured and sold as a slave in America. Gyasi’s epic story recounts the lives of Effia and Esi’s descendants over the next 300 years, showcasing how much lives can be changed by forces out of our control.
Told as six different interconnecting short stories, Mitchell shows off his writing prowess in this original novel. You start with the journal of an explorer in 1850, then jump from a 1930s Belgian composer to a 1970s investigative journalist, present-day England, dystopian Korea, and post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Before you can catch your breath, the stories slingshot back in reverse order, revealing an overarching narrative that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Min Jin Lee
In the early 1900s, Sunja falls for a wealthy stranger in Korea. When Sunja finds she is pregnant, she learns he is married. Refusing to be his mistress, she instead marries a kind but sickly preacher. Moving to Japan, she becomes best friends with her sister-in-law, a friendship that will pull her family through hardships for generations to come.
Rand’s modern classic follows Howard Roarke, an unyielding young architect determined to stand by his principles no matter the costs. In a world that doesn’t approve of his innovation, Roarke becomes so obsessed with his work that he leaves no room for the love of the beautiful Dominique Francon, who eventually marries his enemy. Laying the foundation for Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, The Fountainhead shows the struggle between the individual and the collective.
An unnamed narrator reflects upon her life and a childhood friendship that changed its course forever. Growing up in London, she meets Tracey in a tap dance class. Although Tracey is the more talented dancer, the narrator manages to find a career as an assistant to a world-famous pop star and her friendship with Tracey takes a turn for the worse.
Modern Classic Books to REad
During a Little League baseball game, Owen Meany hits a foul ball that kills his best friend’s mother. Believing himself to be God’s instrument, Owen seeks to fulfill his own prophecy. Narrated by Owen’s best friend John Wheelwright, A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the best literary fiction books of all time and a beloved modern classic.
Loved and hated alike, The Goldfinch is a literary epic that will long be remembered as one of the top books of the decade. Abandoned by his father after his mother’s death, 13-year-old Theo Decker must readjust to a whole new life. His one tie to his mother – a small painting of a goldfinch – will eventually lead him into the intricate underworld of art.
Zora Neale Hurston
Although mostly overlooked during her life, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has had a well-deserved resurgence in popularity in the last few decades. Hurston’s classic recounts the life of Janie Crawford through her three marriages and journey of self-discovery. Throughout the novel, Hurston makes you consider marriage, gender roles, and what makes a liberated woman.
To understand why she is different from other girls, Calliope Stephanides dives into her Greek American family’s history. Immigrating from a tiny village in Greece to Prohibition-era Detroit and eventually the shores of Michigan, three generations of the Stephanides family are swept into the pull of history while hiding a shameful family secret – a genetic trait that turns Calliope into Cal.
Growing up, Piscine “Pi” Patel loves spending his time at the zoo his parents own. When his parents decide to move their zoo from India to Canada, he finds himself on a ship in the Pacific Ocean, never suspecting that a storm will leave him stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific struggling to survive for months at sea with a Bengal tiger as his only companion. As you near the end of this book, you’ll probably be wondering why I recommended it. Trust me, just push through to the end, for it’s the ending of this book that raises it above mediocrity. With just a few simple sentences, suddenly the author makes you pause and reevaluate everything you just read.
Famous Literary Works
With its focus on the message of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, East of Eden is often considered one of Steinbeck’s greatest novels. Set in the Salinas Valley of California, the story follows Adam Trask, a wealthy man whose troubles with his brother are paralleled in his own twin sons. Covering the power of love and the pain of its absences, East of Eden is enduring classic literature for your to-read list.
In one of his best-known English literature books, Hardy tells the story of a young woman from a poor family driven to claim (probably false) kinship as a distant relative of the wealthy D’Urbervilles. After her “cousin” Alec D’Urberville ruins her reputation, she tries to live an ordinary life, but her past continues to haunt her.
At the center of the story is a long-running legal case, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, about a disputed inheritance, in which all the main characters are entangled. Our lovely heroine Esther Summerson becomes the ward of John Jarndyce along with two other distant cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. With a large cast of characters, all of which will intertwine in the typical Dickensian fashion, Bleak House is a must-read of famous literature if you don’t mind reading very long classics.
A classic coming-of-age story that has enchanted readers for decades, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn chronicles young teen Francie Nolan as she grows up in the slums of Brooklyn. Covering poverty and the American dream, Betty Smith’s masterpiece points out the struggles of the poor families of the early 20th century. Yet, the enduring message of this classic book is one of hope for the future.
To round out my literary fiction books list, I couldn’t help but mention John Galsworthy’s masterpiece. Published as a series of three novels between 1906 and 1921, The Forsyte Saga describes the ups and downs of a large upper-middle-class English family keenly aware of their “new money” status. The saga heavily focuses on Soames Forsyte, who mistakenly thinks that more wealth will make him happier.
What literary books would you recommend for literary fiction lovers?