12 Favorite Novels from a Longtime Industry Insider

For the past fifteen years, my job has been to recommend great books to readers. First at the wonderful and sadly now-defunct San Francisco bookstore A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, and then as marketing director at Simon & Schuster. Pretty awesome, right? Now I’d like to share twelve of my favorites with you. These are books that have stayed with me long after I turned the last page. They are filled with heart and heartbreak, exquisite sentences, and the tiny details that make up a life. I would be thrilled to read any of these novels again for the first time.

Shotgun Lovesongs
by Nickolas Butler

Little Wing is a place like hundreds of others but seldom has the American heartland been so richly and accurately portrayed. For four boyhood friends brought together for a wedding, this small Wisconsin town will foster heartbreak, hope, healing, and heroism in a novel that, once read, will never be forgotten.

Mary Coin
by Marisa Silver

In 1936, Dorothea Lange shot the most famous photograph of the Great Depression, “Migrant Mother.” Marisa Silver’s novel breathes life into that famous image in a tremendous reimagining, a compassionate, poignant, dignified portrait of an iconic and unvoiced figure.

The Red Book
by Deborah Copaken Kogan

When four Harvard roommates reunite at their twentieth reunion, their lives are nothing like they expected they’d be. They’ve kept abreast of each other via the red book, a collection of autobiographical essays from alumni published every five years, but face-to-face, they each have a different story to tell.

Stones for Ibarra
by Harriet Doerr

The first of Harriet Doerr’s two beautiful novels was published when she was seventy-three. Slim and evocative, it won the National Book Award. An American couple relocate to “a declining village of a thousand souls” where their lives are forever changed by the Mexican landscape and the people who inhabit it.

The Lake Shore Limited
by Sue Miller

I’ll read anything Sue Miller writes for her uncanny ability to examine uncomfortable places in ourselves and in our relationships. She’s masterful here in a complex story of grief and guilt, of messy lives and ambitious art, of emotional entanglements and inconsolable losses.

We Are Called to Rise
by Laura McBride

Far from the casinos and lights, the Las Vegas suburbs sprawl out into the desert. In this desolate boomtown, three desperate souls—a middle aged woman attempting to revive her marriage, a veteran just returned from Iraq, and a brave eight-year-old Albanian boy—must decide whether to give in to despair, or to find the courage and resilience to rise.

by Susan Minot

During a summer weekend in Maine twenty-five-year-old Ann Grant fell in love at her best friend’s wedding, which was darkened by tragedy. Forty years later as she is dying, that weekend returns in the delirium of a fever dream. Passionate, poetic, and highly ambitious, this is a novel I can read again and again.

The First Desire
by Nancy Reisman

A remarkable exploration of family dynamics. July 1929, Buffalo, New York: Goldie Cohen, the eldest of five siblings, the one tasked with caring for them since their mother died, leaves to go shopping and does not come back. Her three sisters, brother, and father find themselves envious, angry, perplexed, vulnerable, lonely, sad, adrift, and longing.

Carry the One
by Carol Anshaw

Through friendships and love affairs, marriage and divorce, parenthood and family holidays, the modest calamities and triumphs of ordinary days, Carry the One shows how one life affects another, and how those who thrive and those who self-destruct are closer to each other than we’d expect.

Little Bee
by Chris Cleave

It was Little Bee’s voice that first knocked me out. It’s musical, it’s magical, and it’s joyful. And yet, this sixteen-year-old Nigerian girl has experienced unspeakable horrors. Chris Cleave’s novel is brutal and beautiful at the same time.

The Summer Guest
by Justin Cronin

Before he burst on the scene with his acclaimed vampire trilogy beginning with The Passage, Justin Cronin wrote a simple story about a dying man’s final wish and the impact it has on those he loves.

The Position
by Meg Wolitzer

Imagine if your parents wrote a bestselling Joy of Sex–type book when you were in middle school. A horror like that would not ever go away, even thirty years later when your parents are long divorced, and you and your siblings are adults with sex lives of your own. The Position isn’t as well known as Meg Wolitzer’s bestseller The Interestings, but for my money, it’s even more delicious.