These days, timeless literature set in New York City makes people think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, so we’re suggesting some other works with an NYC setting. We’ve picked our favorite classics, and thrown in some more recent or lesser-known fictional works that use the city as more than just a backdrop for a story– New York becomes an integral element of these writers’ works.
1. Let the Great World Spin Colum McCann (2009)
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Let the Great World Spin offers a very real representation of a gritty New York in the ’70s, using the great tightrope walk by Phillipe Petit as a unifying event. Colum McCann weaves the stories of multiple protagonists into a web centrally focused on the city and the very real lives of the people in it.
2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
The story of a girl growing up with her multi-ethnic family, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn depicts an early-1990s Williamsburg. Betty Smith offers a youth’s perspective on war, death, and city life in this NYC-set classic.
3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
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Narrated by a nine-year old, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the endearing story of a boy’s search for clues about his father who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Foer takes his readers on a small but important adventure around New York City recognizing the tragedy of 9/11 and exploring its impact on the individual and the struggle to address an entire country in mourning.
4. Watchmen by Alan Moore (1986)
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Watchmen, a classic of DC Comics, is a 12-part graphic novel based in a fictional version of New York City with superheroes, war, and intrigue. Alan Moore creates an alternate 1980’s reality in a city impacted by alternate outcomes of the Vietnam War, the Nixon presidency, and U.S.-Soviet relations.
5. Our House in the Last World by Oscar Hijuelos (1983)
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Our House in the Last World deals with a family of Cuban immigrants in New York City, focusing on the experiences of the family’s young son, Hector and his search for identity. The Spanish Harlem portrayed by Oscar Hijuelos is a tumultuous setting balanced by the warm and passionate characters he writes.
6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)
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Truman Capote’s novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, paints a year in the life of an Upper East Side socialite of the 1940’s as protagonist Holly Golightly searches for happiness in a newly materialized New York City. The story of how she tries to find her place in New York City by being involved with wealthy men is told by her interlocutor and neighbor, “Fred.” The novella was famously made into a film starring Audrey Hepburn.
7. Dreamland by Kevin Baker (1999)
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From 1904 to 1911, Coney Island housed an amusement park called “Dreamland,” where most of Dreamland‘s action is set. Kevin Baker uses fictional characters based on real people to take his readers through the experience and history of this “freak show” amusement park that eventually burned down.
8. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)
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The Fountainhead‘s protagonist is a young NYC-based architect, Howard Roark, trying to design modern buildings in an exaggeratedly classicist society. Ayn Rand analogizes architecture to her strong beliefs of individualism, creativity, and the value of a selfish ego.
9. Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara (1964)
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In this collection of poems, Frank O’Hara records his lunch hours spent reacting spontaneously to his experiences. Throughout Lunch Poems is a longing for personal connection and a plethora of references to pop culture and other writers.
10. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)
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The Goldfinch is an epic novel about a young man’s tumultuous tale surrounding Carel Fabritius’s painting of The Goldfinch housed in the Metropolitan Museum. In the early portion of the novel set in New York City, Donna Tartt vividly portrays the Upper East Side and the West Village.
11. The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (2005)
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The story of The Brooklyn Follies centers around an aging man settling to die alone in Brooklyn. However, he reconnects with his estranged nephew who helps him find a more positive outlook on the remainder of his life allowing him to find redemption for his past.
12. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)
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The transgressive story of Manhattan businessman and serial killer, American Psycho‘s highly unreliable narrator relates his life which is full of mundane relationships and of violent exploits. The murders committed in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel are not mere gunshots, but crimes of a lunatic– we cautiously recommend this one.
13. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman (2013)
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Female writer Adelle Waldman uses the point of view of a 21st century male to narrate his feelings on relationships, love, and sexuality as a normal to handsome man in New York. Her writing in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. has likened Waldman to a 21st century Jane Austen.
14. Angels in America by Tony Kushner (first performed 1991)
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The original play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes depicts a New York City of the 1980’s dealing with homosexuality and the outbreak of AIDS. Tony Kushner writes stereotypically New York characters and artfully portrays the city where his characters coexist, suffer, and recover together.
15. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
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The framework for The Bell Jar is set in New York City, where the young female narrator Esther lives the glamorous life of an intern at an acclaimed magazine but feels no excitement. After her experience in New York, Sylvia Plath recounts Esther’s descent into depression and dealing with suicidal thoughts.
16. Open City by Teju Cole (2012)
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Open City is the story of a Nigerian doctor named Julius who wanders around Manhattan reflecting on his past. Along the way, Teju Cole’s narrator meets other people wresting with their pasts as well, as he ventures around the city in a wonderful depiction of the city’s mosaic of neighborhoods.
17. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)
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And since we can’t deny that Fitzgerald knew how to represent New York in writing, we appreciate his portrait of New York during the Jazz Age. The Beautiful and Damned is an illustration of elite New York society in the 20’s but also contemplates themes of intimacy, decadence, and morality.
Read on about our 10 favorite non-fiction books on New York City as well as a reader-submitted collection of NYC non-fiction reads. Let us know what your favorites are!