New York City skyline

7 Classic New York City Novels That Perfectly Capture Its Energy

Cecily von Ziegesar is the author of Cobble Hill; Cum Laude; Dark Horses; and the best-selling Gossip Girl book series, the basis for the hit TV show. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.

The city itself is just as much a character in my books as the people. It’s been eighteen years since Gossip Girl, my first book, was published. Many people have told me recently that they’ve been rereading the books and rewatching the show because they needed a reminder of the city at its best. I grew up in Manhattan and now live in Brooklyn. I’ve lived in other places, but I love New York—it’s very much home. I’m finding that I appreciate different things about it as I go through different stages of my life. My daughter was born the same year Gossip Girl was first published. I remember those first weeks of having a newborn in the city in winter, bundling her inside my coat, and just by leaving my building and going for a short walk around my neighborhood, amidst the hustle and bustle, I felt like I was still a part of the thriving city. I have since raised two children here, well into teenagerhood. Our neighborhood of Brooklyn is called Cobble Hill. It’s a great place to grow up because it’s like a small town within the big city; it’s also the perfect setting for a book.

Gossip Girl is about privileged private–high school seniors on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, falling in and out of love, behaving badly, and gossiping mercilessly about one another. It has been called a “social satire.” Cobble Hill is somewhat different. The main characters are adults, but it’s still very much about yearning, flirting, wondering where we fit in in the social hierarchy, and behaving badly. I’m not sure how much we change between teenagerhood and adulthood. Cobble Hill explores the humor therein.

When I write about New York I return again and again to the New York stories that molded me as a writer. I reread snippets of them or get swept up and reread the whole thing. Here are seven of my favorites.

The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton

Madame Olenska leaves her marriage and returns to New York. She’s rejected by her old society friends and struggles to find her place. She rekindles an old flame and tries to talk herself into believing it isn’t wrong. Her story was part of my inspiration for Serena van der Woodsen in GOSSIP GIRL, but there’s so much more that inspires me here. Wharton does that thing where we hear the character think one thing and say another. She’s wonderfully omniscient, in cahoots with the reader. And yet she has a deep, soulful empathy and love for her heroine and her foes. There’s an elegance to Wharton’s New York and her well-traveled, well-heeled New Yorkers that is never snooty. It’s genuine, and so romantic: “The worst of it is that I want to kiss you and I can’t.”

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The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Age of Innocence, which explores the joys and scandals surrounding the marriage of an upper-class New York couple during the Gilded Age.

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The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger

The ducks and the carousel in Central Park. Walking aimlessly around the city when everyone else is in school. Insecure, anxious, romantic, existentialist, declarative Holden Caulfield. Just rereading the fiercely loving way he describes his little sister—“I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you’re talking about,” gets me every time. I could never have written Dan in GOSSIP GIRL without Holden Caulfield. There’s a little bit of him in every one of my male protagonists.

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The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger

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The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

All of my five half-siblings had gone to boarding school, so my father thought I ought to go too. I remember my Phillips Exeter interview distinctly. The interviewer was a young, severe woman who wore a kilt. When she asked me about a favorite book I’d read recently I said confidently, “THE BELL JAR, by Sylvia Plath.” The interviewer was taken aback. “But she killed herself.” The interview spiraled downward from there, and I never went to boarding school. Suicide is not what’s memorable to me about THE BELL JAR. It’s a witty, apt chronicle of the anxieties of a hyperintelligent college-age woman trying (and failing) to find herself in the city. No one writes like Plath. Her word choices startle you awake. I don’t care what that Exeter interviewer thought all those years ago. THE BELL JAR is a crucial chronicle of young womanhood.

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The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath

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The Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe

Reading Tom Wolfe made me a more daring writer—with language and dialogue and sentence structure, and with iconography, particularly the iconography of the city. This book is bold and funny and gets a particular milieu at a particular time in New York just exactly right. It’s a true social satire. I knew I wanted to do something similar but also very different. Wolfe’s portrayal of New York society is harshly hilarious. He doesn’t seem to care if his rich people are unlikeable. I do laugh at my rich New Yorkers, but I laugh with them and I love them too.

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The Bonfire of the Vanities
Tom Wolfe

This quintessential story of 1980s New York centers on three characters—a WASP bond trader, a Jewish assistant district attorney, and a British expatriate journalist—as they navigate a cutthroat world of ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed.

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The Stories of John Cheever
by John Cheever

Cocktails in Grand Central Station and cigarettes on rainy sidewalks. Glowing apartment windows and doormen hailing taxis. I was first introduced to Cheever’s short stories in my tenth grade English class at Nightingale Bamford, taught by Christine Schutt, a wonderful writer and a great teacher. Reading Cheever’s stories, I learned for the first time the importance of setting and specificity. There’s much in his stories that I recognized from having grown up in the city and from having an older father of his generation. From Cheever I learned to pay attention to character details. “He wore his graying hair cut very short, he dressed in the kind of clothes his class had worn at Andover, and his manner was earnest, vehement, and intentionally naïve.” And I learned that heartbreaking things are happening to the businessman in the fancy trench coat that you see every day on the train.

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The Stories of John Cheever
John Cheever

John Cheever won the prize in 1979 for this tender and all-encompassing collection of short stories that give voice to “the greatest generation.”

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The Lonely Doll
by Dare Wright

THE LONELY DOLL was by far my favorite book as a child. It’s since been knocked off many bookshelves for being inappropriate for children, and maybe it is, but that doesn’t make it any less important to me. Wright’s photographs of Edith the doll and the two stuffed bears exploring the city and the interior of their apartment are incredibly, painstakingly, beautiful. I’ve always wanted a vanity like the one where Edith styles her hair and tries on jewelry and lipstick, knowing she’s going to get into trouble. I had a vivid imagination as a child and I was the youngest, the only girl. Edith was my soul sister. Whenever I open this book, I get a little tearful. I suppose it’s the inspiration for a theme explored in all my books, that someone who can appear so flawless—like Edith, the beautiful doll—is actually messy and complex and very human.

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The Lonely Doll
Dare Wright

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MENTIONED IN:

7 Classic New York City Novels That Perfectly Capture Its Energy

By Cecily von Ziegesar | November 10, 2020

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The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My all-time favorite book, the book I return to again and again. I even had my father read from it at my wedding. It’s exquisite and tragic and optimistically pessimistic. It’s a love story and a murder mystery, social commentary and a history lesson, all rolled into one. I find myself stopping to reread a sentence just for the pleasure of it. Gatsby’s devotion to impressing Daisy and Nick’s observations as a person new to the party—and new to the city and its wealthy suburbs—have informed everything I write. When I’m working on an ending, I always reread Fitzgerald’s inimitable last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Some consider it “the great American novel.” The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his powerful love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan is an exquisitely crafted tale that has been essential reading since it was published.

Read the full review here.

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Cobble Hill
by Cecily von Ziegesar

COBBLE HILL is a deliciously irresistible novel chronicling a year in the life of four families in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood as they seek purpose, community, and meaningful relationships—until one unforgettable night at a raucous neighborhood party knocks them to their senses.

Smart, sophisticated, yet surprisingly tender, COBBLE HILL is highly entertaining portrait of contemporary family life and the colorful characters who call Brooklyn home.

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Cobble Hill
Cecily von Ziegesar

“Best Novels of Fall 2020” —Vogu­e
“Most Anticipated List for Fall 2020” —Parade
“Best of Fall 2020” —PopSugar
“Best Books of 2020” —Marie Claire

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Gossip Girl series, a deliciously irresistible novel chronicling a year in the life of four families in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood as they seek purpose, community, and meaningful relationships—until one unforgettable night at a raucous neighborhood party knocks them to their senses.

Welcome to Cobble Hill.

In this eclectic Brooklyn neighborhood, private storms brew amongst four married couples and their children. There’s ex-groupie Mandy, so underwhelmed by motherhood and her current physical state that she fakes a debilitating disease to get the attention of her skateboarding, ex-boyband member husband Stuart. There’s the unconventional new school nurse, Peaches, on whom Stuart has an unrequited crush, and her disappointing husband Greg, who wears noise-cancelling headphones—everywhere.

A few blocks away, Roy, a well-known, newly transplanted British novelist, has lost the thread of his next novel and his marriage to capable, indefatigable Wendy. Around the corner, Tupper, the nervous, introverted industrial designer with a warehose full of prosthetic limbs struggles to pin down his elusive artist wife Elizabeth. She remains…elusive. Throw in two hormonal teenagers, a ten-year-old pyromaniac, a drug dealer pretending to be a doctor, and a lot of hidden cameras, and you’ve got a combustible mix of egos, desires, and secrets bubbling in brownstone Brooklyn.

Smart, sophisticated, yet surprisingly tender, Cobble Hill is highly entertaining portrait of contemporary family life and the colorful characters who call Brooklyn home.

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