Great Book Club Books About (or set in...) New York City

These books are all excellent in their own right. That they use the backdrop of New York City to tell their story? That just makes them all the more ripe for discussion.


Desperate Characters

by Paula Fox

Take a trip to brownstone Brooklyn in the late 1960s — before it was the home of hipsters and too many strollers — and find out what the borough was like before gentrification. Set over a single weekend in which Sophie Bentwood realizes her place in the world is unsteady at best after she lets a stray cat into her house and it bites her, this fierce, slim novel will give you new perspective on the New York that is and was, as well as on the perils and challenges of urban life and marriage.


Turn, Magic Wheel

by Dawn Powell

Set in the edgy, smoky New York of the 1930s, this satire of the literary life manages to be sympathetic and moving in spite of its hard edges. It tells the story of Dennis Orphen, a writer who befriends the former wife of a famous novelist and then uses her life as fodder for his work. While she waits in vain for her husband’s return to her side, Dennis carries on affairs with other women and takes various writing and editing jobs to support himself. Powell skewers not only the whims and foibles of magazine and book publishers but also the fragile ego of writers like herself. She pulls no punches and in the process gives us 1930s New York whole—trench coats, dive bars and rain-spattered pavement galore.


84, Charing Cross Road

by Helene Hanff

Though the title is the address of a bookshop in London, the contents of this letter collection were mostly written by Helene Hanff, a freelance writer who lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. An avid reader, she first wrote to Marks & Co, located on Charing Cross Road, in 1949, in search of some of her favorite titles. What followed was a twenty-year correspondence between her and the staff of the bookshop, the head book-dealer in particular, that took them through rationing (she sent care packages of food and stockings though she had never met the staff), and all the high and low times that come along with the writing life. Along with an exquisite portrayal of a friendship formed and maintained via the postal service, it gives a great sense of life in New York (and London) in those years.


Selected Poems

by Frank O'Hara, edited by Mark Ford

More than almost any other writer, Frank O’Hara was and is New York. Some of his best poems are about nothing more than the city itself — the pleasures and glittery chaos of living in it — and they capture the intense combination of love, awe, frustration, amazement, joy and contentment all New Yorkers know as their right. His language is direct — one of O’Hara’s great charms is that he almost always says exactly what he meant — and buoyant, making these poems a great way to get to know his (and my) home town.


Family Happiness

by Laurie Colwin

Colwin was a master of the carefully-observed domestic novel laced with gentle humor and true wisdom about human relationships. She also happened to live in New York, and her best work is set there. This warm and satisfyingly unresolved novel tells the story of Polly, a well-established native New Yorker wife and mother—apartment on Park Avenue, two kids, lawyer husband, satisfying part-time work — who finds herself embroiled in a love affair with a painter in spite of considering herself exactly the kind of person who would never do such a thing. Over the course of the narrative she discovers, as so many of us do, that it’s entirely possible to hold two sets of genuine affection in one’s heart and learn to live with it.


The Custom of the Country

by Edith Wharton

Though this book was first published in 1913, it could easily be contemporary if the clothing styles and social mores were altered just a bit. An incisive portrait of a social climbing woman who seeks a higher position (rather than a career, given the times) through marriage, it’s stuffed with all the gilt, wallpaper and opera gowns you need to fully imagine yourself in New York during its first gilded era. The heartless calculating of its so-called heroine will leave you breathless with its cruelty even as you’re laughing at how easily she makes everyone around her — parents and beaus included — fall into line.


The Emperor's Children

by Claire Messud

In many ways an updated version of Turn, Magic Wheel, this rich novel dissects the literary life in Manhattan circa 21st century. It features Julius, a freelance critic, Marina, daughter of a great public intellectual who’s finishing her first novel, and her best friend, Danielle, who works in television. When a newcomer turns the expected order of ambition and rewards on its head, they struggle to realign themselves. Studded with yearning and dashed hopes of all kinds — professional, emotional, romantic — this story of a group of twenty-somethings in the Big Apple is as much a cautionary tale as it is a good, highly discussable read.