Plenty of people are complaining about what a terrible year 2016 was, but in one area, we were lucky: It was a great year for fiction. While none of us could read every single novel or short story we hoped to, we got to as many as we could — and here are our favorites.
‘The Underground Railroad,’ Colson Whitehead (Doubleday): Whitehead’s novel about a runaway slave taking a literal underground railroad north in search of freedom is on many end-of-the-year lists, for good reason. This powerful blend of the historical and the fantastical won the National Book Award earlier this fall, and no wonder — it’s a thrilling, relentless adventure, an exquisitely crafted novel that exerts a deep emotional pull.
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‘LaRose,’ Louise Erdrich (Harper): A father inadvertently kills his neighbor’s son, so he reaches back into Native American tradition to find an unorthodox way of repentance: He and his wife send their own boy to live with the bereaved family. A vital part of her ongoing chronicles about the Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota, Erdrich’s novel about family, revenge and redemption has been inexplicably overlooked when awards are mentioned, but it’s one of the best novels of the year, showcasing her ability to wrench your heart and make you laugh in the space of the same page.
‘Today Will Be Different,’ Maria Semple (Little, Brown): The author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” could make you laugh on your worst day — which is what animator and illustrator Eleanor Flood experiences over the course of the novel. Over 24 hours, Eleanor copes with the mysterious disappearance of her husband, the reappearance of an annoying colleague and the fact that her overdue book contract is no longer viable (among other issues) while Semple pokes fun at upwardly mobile parents, the world of TV and her home base of Seattle.
‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ Elizabeth Strout (Random): The beauty of this spare but evocative story lies in its ability to say so much about its protagonist’s troubled childhood without saying much at all. Strout, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Olive Kitteridge,” reveals Lucy’s secrets with subtle compassion as Lucy recovers from a mysterious illness and comes back into contact with her estranged mother and a life she has left behind.
‘The Excellent Lombards,’ Jane Hamilton (Grand Central): The author of “A Map of the World” returns with this coming-of-age tale about Mary Frances “Frankie” Lombard, who’s growing up with her brother in her family’s beloved Wisconsin apple orchard. Frankie thinks she knows what’s happening between all the adults in her life and what the future holds for her, but we know what she can only faintly understand: that life as she knows it — as we know it — is always destined to change.
‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven,’ Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster): This World War II drama, set in London during the Blitz and the lesser-known but horrific siege of Malta, was inspired by the experiences of Cleave’s grandparents, but its personal importance to the author never causes him to force his hand. “Everyone Brave is Forgiven” is a war story, to be sure, with battle scenes and a love triangle and plenty of tragedy, but Cleave (“Little Bee”) is unwilling to allow us the comfort of an entirely happy ending. Life goes on — but at a price.
‘They May Not Mean to, But They Do,’ Cathleen Schine (Sarah Crichton): Not everyone can wring so many funny, painful truths out of the hardships of old age, but Schine does in her story of the Bergmans of New York, who struggle with dementia, poor health and disruptive, long-distance caring for elderly parents. (The title is taken, of course, from Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” which begins “They f--- you up, your mum and dad...”) But despite the tough subject matter, Schine never loses sight of life’s delights and ironies.
‘Swing Time,’ Zadie Smith (Penguin): Two girls obsessed with dancing grow up in London’s housing estates in the 1980s. One grows up to become a successful personal assistant to a pop star. The other becomes a dancer — or tries to. Through the lens of their on-again, off-again (mostly off-again) friendship, Smith examines issues of race, culture and responsibility with unwavering insight.
‘A Gentleman in Moscow,’ Amor Towles (Viking): The author of “Rules of Civility” imagines what would happen to an aristocratic Russian count sentenced by Bolsheviks to life in Moscow’s Metropole Hotel. You might imagine that Count Alexander Rostov would waste away in boredom, but instead he lives a rich, intriguing and enviable life in this urbane and witty historical novel.
‘Commonwealth,’ Ann Patchett (Harper): Is it possible that “Commonwealth” is Ann Patchett’s best book? I think it might be. That’s a difficult assessment when you consider she wrote the outstanding “Bel Canto,” but “Commonwealth,” about two families linked by an affair, two divorces and a tragedy, feels both intimate and universal, one of the marks of a great work. Set over 50 years and playing out in nonlinear fashion, it’s Patchett’s most autobiographical work to date.