The best novels of 2014 delve into the recent past, the near future, and faraway worlds. Encompassing late-career epics and ambitious debuts, they consider the after-effects of everything from apocalypse to adultery, and reckon with religion and war using dreams, magic, science fiction, and occasionally nothing but the power of prose. Sometimes, in the grand tradition of The Wizard of Oz, they take us no further than the Midwest, America’s own backyard, to teach us about ourselves: our desires, our secrets, and our fascination with what makes an enduring story.
Adultery, by Paulo Coelho
Is finding yourself always a worthwhile goal—even if doing so imperils your marriage? Internationally bestselling author Coelho (The Alchemist) addresses this and other philosophical questions about the pursuit of happiness through the prism of Linda, a wife, mother, and successful journalist in Geneva whose midlife crisis leaves her tangled in an affair with an ex. “I’ve always tried to meet everyone’s expectations,” says Linda, who becomes a cautionary tale about what happens when your own long-repressed desires reassert themselves and will not take “no” for an answer.
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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami
Like Linda from Adultery, Tsukuru, the protagonist of the latest novel by Japan’s most famous contemporary writer, is a lonely and out of sync 30-something who revisits his past in an attempt to come to grips with his unsatisfying present. Tsukuru hasn’t felt truly whole since he was expelled without explanation from a group of close friends. A quieter, more meditative book than 1Q84, Murakami’s three-volume fantasia of parallel worlds, assassins, and true love, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki has dreamy power.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robinson (Gilead) is back with Lila, the latest installment in her series of lyrical, clear-eyed books about an aging preacher and his strange, unsmiling, much younger wife. This novel reveals Lila’s origins as a nameless child, saved from an uncaring family but thrown into the uncertainty of life on the road. Lila is one of the finest, least sentimental depictions of domestic poverty, resiliency, and survival since Grapes of Wrath, and is likely to be grouped with it on the shelf of Great American Novels.
Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, by Alice Munro
Quiet does not always mean subtle, and subtle does not always mean deep. But these 24 short stories by Nobel Prize-winner Munro manage to combine all three attributes. This collection takes us behind locked doors and into marriage beds, childhoods, the Canadian wilderness, and the equally inscrutable wilderness of old age. With Munro as our guide, we’re happy to examine the painful beauty in everyday life.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Guggenheim fellow Doerr (The Shell Collector) uses radio—specifically, the power of stories to cross enemy lines—to braid the fate of a young, blind French girl with that of an orphaned German boy in this elegant bestseller set during World War II. There is a fairytale quality to the book—the girl and her father must flee to a rickety old house by the sea; the boy must march with monsters and yet retain his humanity—that works perfectly with Doerr’s evocative prose.
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
The latest from international literary sensation Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) is an extravaganza on the author’s favorite themes: immortality, reincarnation, forgiveness, love, worlds within worlds, inspiring young women, dyspeptic old men, and the importance of taking care of the environment. This action-packed, magical novel, which is buoyant despite its length and ambition, makes the case that living forever is not nearly as important as living well.
The Children Act, by Ian McEwan
In this compact novel by Ian McEwan (Atonement), a successful judge finds herself coping simultaneously with her husband’s betrayal and a challenging court case that asks her to weigh a couple’s religious beliefs against the health of their 17-year-old son, who shares their convictions. If a child says, “Don’t save me,” what is the obligation of the state? This novel creates high drama from questions of spirituality, fidelity, and the sanctity of life, and forces us to ask hard questions about our own beliefs.
The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
This surreal, futuristic epic by Faber (Under the Skin) shoots the well-meaning, good-hearted, and aptly named Peter into space to minister to a curious native population of Oasans. Back on Earth, where Peter’s brave wife waits for him, things fall apart. Modern literary and sci-fi novels don’t often broach the topic of faith; it’s refreshing to encounter Faber’s respectful take on Peter’s relationship with his god and his wife.
One More Thing, by B.J. Novak
Another debut—this one from TV writer Novak—offers an effervescent break from tales of disloyalty and apocalypse. No one who’s familiar with Novak’s work writing and directing The Office will be surprised by the talent on display in this collection of short stories, the topics of which range from a sex doll with artificial intelligence to a cranky old man who feels unfairly robbed of credit for designing a math problem. These tales are funny, imaginative, and poignant by turns, but always cognizant that a storyteller’s first job is to entertain.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
“We’ll always have Paris,” Rick told Ilsa as they parted in Casablanca. Author St. John Mandel (The Lola Quartet) posits that our civilization’s equivalent of Paris is Shakespeare. Even after society collapses, flattened by a pandemic, a troupe of traveling performers risks everything to bring art—and some music—to those who remain. This sensitive meditation on the durability of language is also about connection, what we hold onto when we’ve lost everything, and what keeps us going.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
This year’s Booker Prize winner, Tasmanian author Flanagan (The Sound of One Hand Clapping), takes us back to the horrors of World War II as seen from a relatively unusual vantage point: a POW labor camp, where an Australian doctor must, using virtually nothing but his hands, treat 700 suffering men whose only reward for getting well is more work. This is historical fiction that is gruesome, astonishing, unsparing, and even romantic.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel
Mantel takes a hiatus from writing her Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall series to bring us this collection of wry and canny short stories. With the same deft sprinkling of (sometimes caustic) humor where it’s most needed, and the same instinct for animating detail and dialogue that makes highbrow history seem not merely relevant but exciting, she addresses contemporary politics, anorexia, life in Saudi Arabia, and more. And as she does in Wolf Hall, she keeps us poised, page after page, waiting for the axe to fall.
Some Luck, by Jane Smiley
Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres) returns to Iowa for this first installment in what will be a three-book series about the Langdon family farm during and beyond the 20th century. This enveloping narrative begins in 1920 and takes us through 1953 one chapter at a time, encompassing war, birth, death, marriage, disappointment, pain, hope, and other universal experiences of everyday life. Smiley has a satirist’s eye but a Midwesterner’s heart; over the course of this slow-burning, deeply felt novel, no character escapes her intelligent notice or her compassion.
California, by Edan Lepucki
For decades, the state of California has represented luxury and escape. California, a postapocalyptic debut novel, is a gritty counterpoint to the dream. Cal and Frida are a young married couple whose tenuous hold on survival in the wilderness is challenged when they find that their only neighbors dead and Frida is pregnant. How does one look to an uncertain future with hope, asks Lepucki, even when hope seems like an impossible indulgence?
We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas
Protagonist Eileen Tumulty’s name perfectly foreshadows the tumultuous 60 years that lie ahead in first-time author Thomas’s epic about the American dream. Born in 1941 as a poor Irish immigrant in Woodside, Queens, Eileen pins her hopes of a better life on her love for and marriage to a mild-mannered neuroscientist—only to watch as Alzheimer’s destroys him from within. This is a love letter to caretakers and to mothers, to immigrants and to people who still, against all odds, labor for their piece of the American dream.