The Best Books of 2021

There are still 8 more days of 2021 (enough time to read another 5 star book!), but here are my top picks from the year so far. I’ll do my usual wrapup post on December 31, when I will reflect on the overall year of reading, but here are the 8 books that really stood out for me.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. This thriller about a struggling author who steals an award-winning plot from a dead former student was literally impossible to put down. It got me out of a reading slump and is one of the books I’ve recommended to other people all year. Everyone I know who has read it agrees that it’s a highly addictive and entertaining book. I loved it. Hanff Korelitz’s writing is smart and funny, and the book is full of snark about the publishing industry. It starts out a little slow, but once it gets going, it’s like a steam engine. 

Count The Ways by Joyce Maynard. I love, love Joyce Maynard books. This was an extremely engrossing, touching novel about a New England family and the stresses, tragedies, misunderstandings and joys they experience over several decades. In so many ways, life is a process of letting go, over and over, and experiencing the losses throughout the book was heartbreaking but also a constant reminder of what it means to be a human being. It’s not perfect – there is a fair amount of repetition and Maynard’s main character borders on martyrdom, but oh my god I loved this book anyway. Another one that I couldn’t out down and recommend to anyone who asks me what they should read next. When is her next book coming out???

What Could Be Saved by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz. An intense book told in dual timelines about a 9 year-old boy who disappears when his family is living as expats in Thailand in the 70s. When a man claiming to be him resurfaces many decades later, his appearance unearths painful memories among his surviving mothers and sisters. This literary fiction has elements of a mystery to it, but it’s really about family relationships and how to forgive. My book club loved this one.

Good Morning, Monster by Catherine Gildiner. I read this almost exactly a year ago and it has still stuck with me. It’s a psychotherapist’s chronicle of five of the most difficult patients she worked with over her long career.  Gildiner approaches each one like a puzzle, trying to uncover their secrets and understand how what happened to them when they were young led to the deep-seated problems they had as adults. She explains her strategy for treatment and how different principles of psychology apply in each individual case. She also admits to mistakes she made while treating these patients, owning up to her own fallibility and acknowledging the often fragile threads that bind therapist and client.

The Nine Lives Of Rose Napolitano by Donna Freitas. I adored this book, which explored nine different outcomes, Sliding Doors-style, of a marriage in which the husband wants to have a baby but the wife, Rose, doesn’t. In each scenario, Rose’s happiness depends on whether she’s living her life for herself or for someone else, a strong feminist message that underpins the whole book. I loved the way Freitas structured the novel, with some people appearing in different times, depending on which life Rose was leading.

What Comes After by Joanne Tompkins is a propulsive character-driven novel that also includes a murder-suicide mystery. There’s a lot of pain and loss here: loss of children, of parents, of beloved pets, and of spouses. No one emerges unscathed from this novel. But each of them shows the potential for healing, for finding a life that acknowledges loss and sadness but provides the potential for new joy. That’s what I liked most about this book – Tomkins’ optimism and fundamental belief in the goodness of people.

Should We Stay Or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver has another Sliding Doors-eque structure, but this time it’s about a couple who decides in their 50s that they are going to commit suicide when they turn 80, to spare themselves the risk of long protracted illnesses and the expense of staying alive. In each chapter, Shriver details some version of the suicide pact: they go through with it, they don’t, one does, they run out of money, etc. Each scenario contributes something different to the collection and addresses end of life in a way that makes you think, revisit, ponder and grieve. Is it better to go out on a high? What do we owe to the people we leave behind? Is there such a thing as too long of a life? Another stellar read.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is a painful and painstaking story about a #metoo relationship between a teacher and a student. Yet there are shades of grey that even the narrator acknowledges that make the book more complicated, and therefore more problematic to characterize. It is beautifully written (if a bit too long) and once you start reading it’s impossible to put it down. You may be disgusted by the teacher and outraged by the predatory trap he set for the student, but the nuance of the story elevates it beyond that one note.

What were your top reads of 2021?