Perhaps no novel this year was more feverishly anticipated—or more frequently stolen from my desk—than Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Europa), the third installment of the enigmatic Italian author’s Neapolitan novels, which tell a single story with the possessive force of an origin myth.
Now in their 30s, the two women at its center—a writer losing her way; a defiant former classmate drawn into a revolutionary movement—face the consequences of their limited choices, raising issues of ambition and identity, creativity and desire.
An immigrant story like no other, Akhil Sharma’s memoir-like second novel, Family Life (Norton), follows a family from India to America, where tragedy soon derails their dreams. Written in the kind of prose that gets under your skin and never really leaves, it’s also the story of how a writer is made.
Based on Margaret Mead’s experience in 1930s New Guinea, Lily King’s brainy and sensuous Euphoria (Atlantic) spins a love triangle in the bush. Wearing her research lightly, King reveals a startlingly vulnerable side to Mead, suggesting an elegant parallel between novelist and archeologist: In scrutinizing the lives of others, we discover ourselves.
Featuring his strongest female character since Atonement’s Briony, Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (Nan A. Talese) infuses a classic showdown between faith and reason with unexpected tenderness. Grounded in the story of a family court judge facing the decision of her career—one with unexpected repercussions for her personal life—McEwan’s thirteenth novel is taut, spellbinding, and unaccountably romantic.
The fiction debut of the year was Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea (Harper), a feat of historical ventriloquism that movingly evokes the voices of two women on a North Carolina plantation during the American Revolution—one white, one black—for whom the fight for liberty and sovereignty take very different forms.
Softer than its preceding two volumes but still impossibly addictive, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book 3 (Archipelago), recalls the ordinary magic—girls, rock music, and the thrill of a new parka—of an otherwise austere Nordic boyhood.
Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (Knopf) begins as a scrapbook of crackling insights into the effect of motherhood on the creative life, but soon deepens into something much richer and more complex as the narrator discovers her husband’s infidelity. A shattering rejoinder to smug mommy blogs, Offill’s portrait of marriage is as raw and honest as any in recent memory.
An unlikely connection between a young drifter and an elderly reverend sparks Marilynne Robinson’s third novel set in the Midwestern town of Gilead, Lila (FSG), which unfolds into a theological inquiry both tender and painful, capturing the comforts and the limits of faith and love.
Eight years old when the Islamic Revolution remade her world, former New York Times correspondent Nazila Fathi distills three decades of Iranian politics through a personal lens in her unputdownable memoir, The Lonely War (Basic Books).
In a year that saw a number of landmark biographies of the famous and infamous —A. N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life, John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh—it was Hermione Lee’s biography of an elusive English novelist who published her first book at 58 that kept surprising us. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Knopf) captures the tribulations of The Blue Flower author, and the power of a voice forged lately, and brilliantly.