Well, here we are! I read 101 books in 2021 (just barely hitting my goal of 100 in the eleventh hour), and I’m… satisfied, if not overwhelmingly happy with, my reading year. Which isn’t meant to devalue any of the books on this list, which I am very excited to share with you all—I just wish I had more serious contenders to choose from. If I were to sum up my reading this year in a word, it would be “mild”. As I said in my Most Disappointing Books of the Year post, I’m used to having high highs and low lows, but this year was more steady than anything: a lot of 3- and 4-star reads, a lot of books that I enjoyed but which didn’t inspire a lot of passion in me. Which, to be fair, probably had more to do with my mental state this year than anything. But all of that said, I am really happy with this group of books I’ve selected. The top four in particular, could go in pretty much any order: they’re four of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
I do just want to acknowledge that statistically, this isn’t the most diverse of lists: I’m not proud of how white and how US/UK/Canada/Ireland-centric it is, and I don’t think it’s really indicative of the breadth of books I read this year, but when combing through my Goodreads just now, these are really what stuck out to me as the highlights, so here we are. I’m wondering if I should do a ‘best translated fiction of 2021’ list as well, because there are a lot that I think deserve to be spotlighted.
But anyway, without further ado…
10. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
“They say the perfect is the enemy of the good, that if you strive for perfection you will overlook the good. But I did not agree. I didn’t like the good. The good was just mediocre. I wanted to go beyond mediocre. I wanted to be exceptional. I did not want to be medium-size. I wanted to be perfect. And by perfect, I meant less.”
I think this is the first time ever that I’m putting a book I rated 4 stars in my favorite books of the year list. But the fact of the matter is, while this book didn’t completely stick the landing for me, its highs were virtually unparalleled by anything else I read this year. If you think you have ‘disaster women’ fatigue, I’d really implore you to give Melissa Broder a try—her protagonists are inarguably disasters, but rather than taking the ‘generic millennial everywoman’ approach, Broder writes with such a sharp specificity that I still think about the narrator, Rachel, as though she were a real person. Downright uncomfortable to read at times, this book navigates the relationship between sex and our own bodies with searing insight.
9. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
“The fact is that the same sequence of days can arrange themselves into a number of different stories.”
A retelling of King Lear set on a twentieth century midwestern farm, A Thousand Acres is the best adaptation of my favorite play that I’ve read. I’m just going to quote my own review here: This is a bleak, stark, humorless work, which accesses the tragic inevitability of the original play and refocuses it. This isn’t the tragedy of Lear as much as it is the tragedy of Goneril, the long-suffering eldest daughter, and in turning this into Ginny’s story, part of the cosmic scale is lost, but the calamity and the creeping dread is recaptured on a smaller, more intimate scale. This is an engrossing, quietly devastating book that deftly examines power, corruption, and betrayal through a melancholic, reflective lens, and I found the result both beautiful and heart-rending.
8. Consent by Annabel Lyon
“I was her punishment, certainly, she thinks, taking the empty suitcase out from under the bed. As she was mine. But remind me again of our crime?”
This Canadian dark horse ended up being one of the unexpected highlights of this year’s Women’s Prize longlist for me. A literary thriller of sorts, Consent follows two sets of sisters, whose stories end up intersecting in a surprising way. It’s less of a mystery and more of a stark examination of guilt and obligation, and between its somewhat meandering pace, its unapologetically acerbic tone, and its refusal to fit neatly into a single genre, it’s undoubtedly a tough sell. But for the right reader—so, in this case: me—it’s an engrossing, intelligent, confident work that I couldn’t put down.
7. No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder
“Read any news story today about domestic violence homicide and you’re likely to see some version of the question why didn’t she leave? What you almost surely won’t see is why was he violent?”
In contrast, I feel like I did nothing but put this book down. It took me the better part of six months to listen to this audiobook, because it is so unrelenting to a point where it started to seriously affect me after a while. But that said, I could not recommend this book highly enough to anyone who can stomach it. In No Visible Bruises, journalist Rachel Louise Snyder investigates intimate partner violence through a panoply of lenses; debunking misconceptions, researching government-funded programs that address both prevention and rehabilitation, and proposing how exactly we move forward. It’s a harrowing and necessary read, brilliantly researched and structured.
6. Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
“We can’t conserve anything, and especially not social relations, without altering their nature, arresting some part of their interaction with time in an unnatural way.”
(The desire to forgo a blurb and just write out that TikTok audio “the girls who get it, get it; the girls who don’t, don’t” is strong.) Anyway, reading a new Rooney novel is always a treat: her sentence-by-sentence writing sings for me, and I think her character work is always exceptional. This ended up being my second favorite Rooney after the unbeatable Conversations With Friends—I found the way she addresses social and existential anxieties in this book particularly resonant. Her books and characters never feel like perfect distillations of my own life (which I think is a frankly absurd expectation for any author and I’m not sure why Rooney in particular bears so much weight in that regard), but they do always make me feel slightly less alone in the world, so, that’s something.
5. The Likeness by Tana French
“I had always felt that I was an observer, never a participant; that I was watching from behind a thick glass wall as people went about the business of living–and did it with such ease, with a skill that they took for granted and that I had never known.”
2021 is the year I finally started reading Tana French, and I could not be happier with that decision. Of the the three of her novels that I’ve read, The Likeness is far and away my favorite—this book elevates a downright absurd premise into something really special and entertaining as hell. I love Cassie as a protagonist and I thought French’s depiction of the insularity of academia was pitch-perfect, coming closer to The Secret History in that one specific regard than most other campus novels I’ve read.
4. Endless Night by Agatha Christie
“One doesn’t want to die young. Sometimes one has to.”
This was also the year that I rediscovered Agatha Christie and let me tell you, it’s one of the things that saved 2021 for me. Of the four of her books that I read this year, Endless Night blows the other three out of the water. From the very first page I was just obsessed with this dark, twisted Gothic tale, and the ending elevated it even higher than I thought possible in my estimation. I don’t want to give you unreasonable expectations about this book by reiterating that it dethroned And Then There Were None as my favorite Christie, as they’re such fundamentally distinct projects, but I do really want to implore you to give a try if you’re a Christie fan.
3. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
“In my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall.”
Piranesi‘s setting may be the most beautifully-rendered thing I’ve ever seen in a novel, but it’s far from this book’s only strength. I wasn’t expecting to love this anywhere near as much as I did; its speculative elements didn’t seem suited to my tastes as a reader, and I thought it might be the sort of thing I force myself to read and then never think about again. But I fell hard for it, and what has really stuck with me is the potent depiction of loneliness that Clarke is able to achieve through this strange, offbeat tale. This book is just such an immersive pleasure and I’m already looking forward to revisiting it.
2. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
“But the memory lingered, the lesson I have never quite been able to shake: that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”
Though I’m thrilled with Piranesi‘s Women’s Prize win, this is the book I was rooting for. Transcendent Kingdom both floored me and wrecked me, and I think this is one of the most accomplished books I’ve read in a long time. Gyasi integrates a number of challenging themes and subjects into a single striking narrative so brilliantly that it’s a wonder she was able to accomplish it without sacrificing plot or character development. This book is a marvel.
1. Edie Richter is Not Alone by Rebecca Handler
“I love you. I forgive you. Please forgive me.”
What’s funny is that on the surface, this doesn’t seem like the most ‘me’ book in the world; it’s about a woman struggling through a failing marriage while coping with the recent death of her father. It feels trite to rise to its defense with the classic “but it’s so much more than that!”, and yet… it really, really is. This book plumbs the depths of whether it’s possible to ever know ourselves, let alone other people; it forces the reader to confront uncomfortable realities that live in the darkest corners of our minds; it asks us whether it’s possible to outrun guilt—but it does so with the lightest, deftest touch, and a character voice which is both acerbic and droll. I need more people to give this book a try both because it’s criminally underrated and because it’s challenging to explain what’s so special about it, but at only 192 pages, Edie Richter is Not Alone left the biggest impression on me of anything I’ve read this year.
What was your favorite book that you read in 2021?