10 True Stories with Narratives So Engrossing They Read Like Novels

August 27 2020

Don’t think you like nonfiction reads? We’re here to change your mind! These ten page-turners will have you forgetting they didn’t come from the top of your fiction to-read pile. A combination of investigative journalism, archival-driven historical recoveries, and poignant personal memories, this list covers the gambit of narrative nonfiction. But, like any good story, each of these books offers unforgettable characters, an engrossing plot, and a gripping pace. Whether you are already a nonfiction aficionado or new to the cause, these unbelievable, irresistible books are sure to become instant favorites.  

Three Women
by Lisa Taddeo

In this New York Times bestselling piece of narrative nonfiction, Taddeo breaks new ground, uncovering the internal lives of three very different contemporary women. Meet Lina, Maggie, and Sloane. Lina is a homemaker and mother. Maggie is a teenager with a taboo relationship. And Sloane, refined and elegant, has a successful career and a husband with a fetishTaddeo follows all three women as they take stock of their lives and the desires they left behind. 

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Three Women
Lisa Taddeo

The instant #1 New York Times bestseller and one of the most talked-about books of the year, Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is “the most in-depth look at the female sex drive that’s been published in decades” (New York) and a “groundbreaking...breathtaking…staggeringly intimate” (Entertainment Weekly) look at the sex lives of three real American women—based on nearly a decade of reporting.

Hailed as “a dazzling achievement” (Los Angeles Times) and “riveting page-turner that explores desire, heartbreak, and infatuation in all its messy, complicated nuance” (The Washington Post), Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women has captivated readers, booksellers, and critics—and topped bestseller lists—worldwide.

Declared “the best book of the year” by Elizabeth Gilbert and “a breathtaking and important book” by Cheryl Strayed, Three Women has won praise everywhere from Columbia Journalism Review (“deeply reported, elegantly written, almost uncomfortably intimate”) to Refinery29 (“the hype for Three Women is real; in fact, it’s insufficient”), from Esquire (“a heartbreaking, gripping, astonishing masterpiece”) to Time (“Three Women is a battle cry…For anyone who thinks they know what women want, this book is an alarm, and its volume is turned all the way up.”) In the words of The New Statesman, “This is an unusual, startling, and gripping debut. It feels to me like the kind of bold, timely, once-in-a-generation book that every house should have a copy of, and probably will before too long.”

In suburban Indiana we meet Lina, the homemaker and mother of two whose marriage, after a decade, has lost its passion. Starved for affection, Lina battles daily panic attacks and, after reconnecting with an old flame through social media, embarks on an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming. In North Dakota we meet Maggie, the seventeen-year-old high school student who allegedly has a clandestine physical relationship with her handsome, married English teacher; the ensuing criminal trial will turn their quiet community upside down. Finally, in the northeast we meet Sloane, the successful, refined restaurant owner whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other men and women.

Based on years of immersive reporting and told with astonishing frankness and immediacy, Three Women is both a feat of journalism and a triumph of storytelling, brimming with nuance and empathy. “A work of deep observation, long conversations, and a kind of journalistic alchemy” (Kate Tuttle, NPR), Three Women introduces us to three unforgettable women—and one remarkable writer—whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.

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Never Caught
by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

When George Washington was elected president, he traveled to the temporary capital, Philadelphia, with eight slaves in tow, including Ona Judge. Before long, Judge risked everythingand lost muchto escape to New England. What followed was a horrifying and deeply personal, nationwide manhunt for Judge, led by one of our nation’s Founding Fathers. In this revelatory work of scholarship, Erica Armstrong Dunbar captures a vital historical story through the personal portrait of one extraordinary woman.  

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Never Caught
Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction

A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful story about a daring woman of “extraordinary grit” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital. In setting up his household he brought along nine slaves, including Ona Judge. As the President grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t abide: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, she was denied freedom. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs. At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

“A crisp and compulsively readable feat of research and storytelling” (USA TODAY), historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked everything to gain freedom from the famous founding father.

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Unorthodox
by Deborah Feldman

Now an acclaimed Netflix series, UNORTHODOX is the explosive memoir of one woman’s escape from her religious community. Despite growing up in the intensely restrictive Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, Deborah Feldman developed her own independent ideas, inspired by the women she read about in forbidden books. After years of being trapped in an abusive arranged marriage to an older man, the teenage Feldman gave birth to a son. It was then that she decided she needed to risk everything to build a new life for her and her child. 

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Unorthodox
Deborah Feldman

Now a Netflix original series!

Unorthodox is the bestselling memoir of a young Jewish woman’s escape from a religious sect, in the tradition of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel and Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, featuring a new epilogue by the author.

As a member of the strictly religious Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, Deborah Feldman grew up under a code of relentlessly enforced customs governing everything from what she could wear and to whom she could speak to what she was allowed to read. Yet in spite of her repressive upbringing, Deborah grew into an independent-minded young woman whose stolen moments reading about the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott helped her to imagine an alternative way of life among the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Trapped as a teenager in a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional marriage to a man she barely knew, the tension between Deborah’s desires and her responsibilities as a good Satmar girl grew more explosive until she gave birth at nineteen and realized that, regardless of the obstacles, she would have to forge a path—for herself and her son—to happiness and freedom.

Remarkable and fascinating, this “sensitive and memorable coming-of-age story” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) is one you won’t be able to put down.

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When Time Stopped
by Ariana Neumann

When Ariana Neumann’s father, a Jewish industrial businessman in Venezuela, died, he left her a small box of letters and memorabilia. Following these clues on a worldwide search, Neumann uncovered the incredible and unspeakable life her father had led, hiding in plain sight from the Nazis in 1940s Berlin. Unspooling from his story are the stories of other Neumanns, some of whom made it out and some of whom did not. WHEN TIME STOPPED is a kaleidoscopic family epic with all the intimacy of a personal memoir.  

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When Time Stopped
Ariana Neumann

In this remarkably moving memoir Ariana Neumann dives into the secrets of her father’s past: years spent hiding in plain sight in war-torn Berlin, the annihilation of dozens of family members in the Holocaust, and the courageous choice to build anew.

In 1941, the first Neumann family member was taken by the Nazis, arrested in German-occupied Czechoslovakia for bathing in a stretch of river forbidden to Jews. He was transported to Auschwitz. Eighteen days later his prisoner number was entered into the morgue book.

Of thirty-four Neumann family members, twenty-five were murdered by the Nazis. One of the survivors was Hans Neumann, who, to escape the German death net, traveled to Berlin and hid in plain sight under the Gestapo’s eyes. What Hans experienced was so unspeakable that, when he built an industrial empire in Venezuela, he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it. All his daughter Ariana knew was that something terrible had happened.

When Hans died, he left Ariana a small box filled with letters, diary entries, and other memorabilia. Ten years later Ariana finally summoned the courage to have the letters translated, and she began reading. What she discovered launched her on a worldwide search that would deliver indelible portraits of a family loving, finding meaning, and trying to survive amid the worst that can be imagined.

When Time Stopped is an unputdownable detective story and an epic family memoir, spanning nearly ninety years and crossing oceans. Neumann brings each relative to vivid life. In uncovering her father’s story after all these years, she discovers nuance and depth to her own history and liberates poignant and thought-provoking truths about the threads of humanity that connect us all.

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From Scratch
by Tembi Locke

Tembi fell in love with her husband, professional chef Saro, on the streets of Florence. Despite his family’s disapproval of his marriage to a black American woman, the two built a life together in LA and adopted a daughter. After Saro’s unexpected death from cancer, Tembi and her daughter returned to Saro’s small hometown in Sicily, where they found solace in new community and heartfelt food with Saro’s close-knit family. A dazzling love story and colorful celebration of life, Tembi Locke’s memoir is pure joy. 

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From Scratch
Tembi Locke

This Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick and New York Times bestseller is “a captivating story of love lost and found” (Kirkus Reviews) set in the lush Sicilian countryside, where one woman discovers the healing powers of food, family, and unexpected grace in her darkest hours.

It was love at first sight when actress Tembi met professional chef, Saro, on a street in Florence. There was just one problem: Saro’s traditional Sicilian family did not approve of his marrying a black American woman. However, the couple, heartbroken but undeterred, forged on. They built a happy life in Los Angeles, with fulfilling careers, deep friendships, and the love of their lives: a baby girl they adopted at birth. Eventually, they reconciled with Saro’s family just as he faced a formidable cancer that would consume all their dreams.

From Scratch chronicles three summers Tembi spends in Sicily with her daughter, Zoela, as she begins to piece together a life without her husband in his tiny hometown hamlet of farmers. Where once Tembi was estranged from Saro’s family, now she finds solace and nourishment—literally and spiritually—at her mother-in-law’s table. In the Sicilian countryside, she discovers the healing gifts of simple fresh food, the embrace of a close knit community, and timeless traditions and wisdom that light a path forward. All along the way she reflects on her and Saro’s romance—an incredible love story that leaps off the pages.

In Sicily, it is said that every story begins with a marriage or a death—in Tembi Locke’s case, it is both. “Locke’s raw and heartfelt memoir will uplift readers suffering from the loss of their own loved ones” (Publishers Weekly), but her story is also about love, finding a home, and chasing flavor as an act of remembrance. From Scratch is for anyone who has dared to reach for big love, fought for what mattered most, and those who needed a powerful reminder that life is...delicious.

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The Library Book
by Susan Orlean

Award-winning journalist Susan Orlean takes readers on a unique journey through the cultural importance of libraries as she recounts the mystery of the LA Public Library fire in 1986. Destroying more than four hundred thousand books, the source of the fire has never been uncovered. Orlean’s mesmerizing investigation interweaves her personal experience with books into the history of the library’s development alongside the identity of the nation and the case of Harry Peak, the actor long suspected of starting the LAPL blaze.  

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The Library Book
Susan Orlean

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Lady in Waiting
by Anne Glenconner

Witty, dramatic, and poignant, LADY IN WAITING chronicles of the life of Anne Glenconner, Princess Margaret’s closest confidante and lady in waiting. Befriending the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret at a young age, Anne has been on the inner circle of the royal family for years, during many landmark events. Recounting their stories, as well as her own as she traversed aristocratic family politics and personal tragedies, Anne reveals the inner lives of beloved and reviled contemporary royals, celebrities, and politicians alike.  

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Lady in Waiting
Anne Glenconner

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Without You, There Is No Us : Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite
by Suki Kim

It is the final six months of Kim Jong-il’s life in North Korea, and Suki Kim has gone undercover as a Christian missionary and English teacher. Suki begins to teach the young sons of North Korea’s ruling class within a claustrophobic walled compound. While she is unnerved by their blind obedience, she is also thrilled by their boyish enthusiasm and curiosity, secretly nurturing their desires for something more. But in the emotional and political upheaval after Kim Jong-il’s death, Suki will wonder if she’s miscalculated their level of submission. 

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Without You, There Is No Us : Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite
Suki Kim

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Killers of the Flower Moon
by David Grann

In this masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, bestselling author David Grann details the investigation of one of the most disturbing conspiracies in American history. After discovering oil in the 1920s, the Osage Indian nation became some of the richest people in the world. But soon, members of the tribe began to be murdered. After new FBI director J. Edgar Hoover bungled the case, the chilling and emotionally devastating mystery fell to a former Texas Ranger and an undercover unit to unravel 

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Killers of the Flower Moon
David Grann

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The Romanov Sisters
by Helen Rappaport

In the years since their devastating deaths in the basement at Ekaterinburg, the four Romanov sisters have become idealized portraits of sentimental loss. But in Helen Rappaport’s transportive portrait, informed by a plethora of personal diaries and letters, the four sisters emerge not as fictional figureheads but nuanced and complex girls, sensitive and intelligent inside witnesses to the dark dissolution of what seemed a glamorous world. THE ROMANOV SISTERS is both a personal portrait of girls coming of age and a cinematic depiction of a world on the brink. 

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The Romanov Sisters
Helen Rappaport

A captivating, thoughtful, and eye-opening look at the four tragic Russian grand duchesses, killed in their early teens and twenties in 1918. Though they’ve captured the public imagination, their intelligence, thoughtful personalities, and private lives had never been fully explored until Helen Rappaport’s revealing and informative bestselling biography.

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