What’s the most common element in the universe? If you paid attention in school, you might answer hydrogen, but you’d be wrong. The most common element in the universe is hype, and it’s something we will never run out of. Millions of years after mankind goes extinct, an alien species visiting the dead planet Earth will still find plenty of hype swilling about the atmosphere, championing hot new singles you’ve just got to hear, movies everyone’s going to be talking about, and books that are sure to change literature forever.
Sometimes, of course, hype is justified. Sometimes a much-hyped book turns out to be just as good as the hype promised. The following are five novels that came wrapped in copious amounts of hype—which was totally warranted.
The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe
It’s easy to forget the hype surrounding this novel, which appeared in early draft form as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine in 1984 before being heavily revised and published in 1987. Wolfe was already a superstar, of course, but he was known primarily as an essayist and nonfiction writer prior to Bonfire (which was his first novel), and the serial stunt sent the hype machine into overdrive. The novel lived up to the hype, though, creating a vividly imagined story that truly did capture the New York City that existed in the 1980s as it traced the interwoven stories of “master of the universe” bond salesman Sherman McCoy, his mistress, a washed-up tabloid reporter, and dozens of other wonderfully observed characters in a shining, crumbling city.
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Not only did The Corrections win the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and stand as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (among other awards), it was famously chosen for Oprah’s Book Club back when Oprah, and her book club, dominated the pop culture zeitgeist in a way our kids will never truly understand. Franzen’s, er, less than gracious response to this dubious honor made the book even more famous than it otherwise would have been, and for a while every conversation over cocktails at least briefly touched on it. And it continues to deserve our attention, as its study of the Lambert family’s mistakes, triumphs, joys, and miseries is infused with a hypnotic dread that makes it the sort of novel you want to reread every few years to see if age has made you wise enough to catch something new.
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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
By the time The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in the United States, it had already taken Europe by storm, so to say that 2008 greeted its English translation with a lot of hype would be an understatement. The story of Larsson’s untimely death, coupled with the grisly and supposedly “shocking” aspects of the novel, made thriller and mystery fans salivate to read it, and for a while it was the book everyone wanted to know if you’d read yet. And it lived up to it all, being well-crafted, very Swedish, and, yes, kind of shocking—but also incredibly entertaining, and filled with masterful twists and turns that justified the tidal wave of hype that preceded it.
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
When Gone Girl exploded onto the scene, the search for the “next Gone Girl” began in earnest. A few months ago, the drumbeat for The Girl on the Train being that next great thriller with an unreliable narrator and awesome, insane twists began. And you know what? It nails it. The Girl on the Train is a worthy successor to Gone Girl’s crown. The story of three women linked in unexpected ways—one of whom is a literally unreliable alcoholic narrator—keeps the twists coming while it ratchets the tension up in expert increments, touching on some of the same themes as Gone Girl—love, marriage, and loyalty—but in different ways.
Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan
The “cyberpunk” genre isn’t as well-defined or deeply populated as some other categories, and as a result, whenever a new novel is announced promising that combination of believable tech wizardry and body horror that defines the genre, people tend to get excited and throw around a lot of superlatives. But any doubts about Altered Carbon are waved away within the first few pages, as Morgan’s sharp writing, imaginative concepts, and gritty, realistic feel combine to make this one of the best recent science-fiction books—and one that lived up to every great review and eager recommendation preceding its arrival in your hands.
What book hooked you with unbelievable hype—then turned out to be just as good as you were told?