The United States of America is a big place, each state so different from the next that each one can feel like a different country. In lieu of doing a some sort of crazy months-long roadtrip through all fifty states, you can get a sense of each one through reading novels set there. Reading transports you, allowing you to travel without leaving the comfort of your home. Here are five American authors whose books are an ode to the cities in which they are set.
The Best People by Marc Grossberg —Houston
Marc Grossberg’s The Best People follows a cop-turned-attorney whose sense of right and wrong is challenged as he enters the world of elite divorces in Huston. As best-selling author Andrea White puts it in her glowing review, “As his dreams get bigger, his crimes grow darker.” According to his website, Grossberg’s ‘tale of trials and errors’ “portrays a Houston as it is, a glitzy meritocracy populated with larger-than-life characters. It is the landscape where the country-club and café-society sets clash amidst clever legal manoeuvring, big law firm politics, a Ponzi scheme and judicial corruption.”
Definitely an ode to Grossberg’s hometown of Houston, Texas, Mimi Swartz, Executive Editor of Texas Monthly notes that “Marc Grossberg has the experience and the smarts to make Houston come alive on the page. The Best People will even take lifelong Houstonians to places they’ve never been. As they say in Houston, if it ain’t true, it oughta be.”
Paddy Moran, a former cop from Brooklyn, is a newly licensed attorney in Houston with dreams and aspirations to make it big. He survives early rough bumps and ethical challenges. Then, through networking, he lands two high-profile clients. With his brash moxie and brilliant legal strategy, he gets outstanding outcomes that put him on the success trajectory to the upper echelons of the city’s divorce bar. But, faced with difficult choices in high-stakes litigation, will he balance his thirst for recognition and respect with his sense of right and wrong?
The Best People also follows Pilar Galt, a sensuous, intelligent single mother from the Houston barrios, for whom a temp assignment evolves into a relationship with the richest man in town. Her path intersects with Paddy’s and eventually converges with his during a pivotal time in her life when she must overcome self-destructive tendencies to survive.
A legal drama and social satire set after Enron and before the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, The Best People portrays a Houston as it is: a glitzy meritocracy populated with larger-than-life characters. It is the landscape where the country-club and café-society sets clash amidst clever legal maneuvering, big law firm politics, a Ponzi scheme, and judicial corruption.
Don’t forget to follow Marc Grossberg on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for more news on his writing!
Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin —San Francisco
Recently adapted in a critically acclaimed Netflix series, Maupin’s famous series exemplifies the beauty and wonder of San Francisco. The books follow the lives of the inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane and are a moving exploration of humanity and a city in flux. According to the blurb, the residents of Barbary Lane include “the bewildered but aspiring Mary Ann Singleton; the libidinous Brian Hawkins; Mona Ramsey, still in a sixties trance; Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, forever in bright-eyed pursuit of Mr. Right; and their marijuana-growing landlady, the indefatigable Mrs. Madrigal… Maupin leads them through heartbreak and triumph, through nail-biting terrors and gleeful coincidences. The result is an addictive comedy of manners that continues to beguile new generations of readers.”
Armistead Maupin’s uproarious and moving Tales of the City novels have earned a unique niche in American literature and are considered indelible documents of cultural change from the seventies through the first two decades of the new millennium.
Originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (1978), More Tales of the City (1980), and Further Tales of the City (1982) afforded a mainstream audience of millions its first exposure to straight and gay characters experiencing on equal terms the follies of urban life.
Among the cast of this groundbreaking saga are the lovelorn residents of 28 Barbary Lane: the bewildered but aspiring Mary Ann Singleton, the libidinous Brian Hawkins; Mona Ramsey, still in a sixties trance, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, forever in bright-eyed pursuit of Mr. Right; and their marijuana-growing landlady, the indefatigable Mrs. Madrigal.
Hurdling barriers both social and sexual, Maupin leads them through heartbreak and triumph, through nail-biting terrors and gleeful coincidences. The result is a glittering and addictive comedy of manners that continues to beguile new generations of readers.
White Oleander by Janet Finch—Los Angeles
Finch’s book explores a complex and moving relationship between a daughter and her convict mother, against the backdrop of Los Angeles, California. When her mother goes to prison for murder, Astrid is bounced between foster homes, and, as journalist Nile Cappello notes “Astrid’s own internal struggles are reflected in the diverse landscapes that accompany her road to self-discovery and understanding.” An Oprah’s Book Club pick, White Oleander was adapted into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright and Renee Zellwegger, and is a key Californian coming-of-age text that captures its setting and characters so vividly, you’ll never forget them.
Astrid is the only child of a single mother, Ingrid, a brilliant, obsessed poet who wields her luminous beauty to intimidate and manipulate men. Astrid worships her mother and cherishes their private world full of ritual and mystery, but their idyll is shattered when Astrid’s mother falls apart over a lover. Deranged by rejection, Ingrid murders the man, and is sentenced to life in prison.
White Oleander is the unforgettable story of Astrid’s journey through a series of foster homes and her efforts to find a place for herself in impossible circumstances. Each home is its own universe, with a new set of laws and lessons to be learned. With determination and humour, Astrid confronts the challenges of loneliness and poverty, and strives to learn who a motherless child in an indifferent world can be. Tough, irrepressible, funny, and warm, Astrid is one of the most indelible characters in recent fiction. White Oleander is an unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, burgeoning sexuality, the redemptive powers of art, and the unstoppable force of the emergent self.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon —Pittsburgh
A book I come back to time and time again for its lyrical prose, perfect sentences and strange and unruly characters, Pulitzer Prize-winner Chabon’s debut novel, published when he was just twenty-five follows a young man’s difficult relationships and coming-of-age in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There are simply not enough hours in the day to go through the praise this novel received upon its publication, but Carolyn Forche summed up the acclaim quite nicely when she called Mysteries “Simply, the best first novel I’ve read in years…It will find its place beside On the Road and Catcher in the Rye.”
The enthralling debut from bestselling novelist Michael Chabon is a penetrating narrative of complex friendships, father-son conflicts, and the awakening of a young man’s sexual identity.
Chabon masterfully renders the funny, tender, and captivating first-person narrative of Art Bechstein, whose confusion and heartache echo the tones of literary forebears like The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield and The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh incontrovertibly established Chabon as a powerful force in contemporary fiction, even before his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay set the literary world spinning. An unforgettable story of coming of age in America, it is also an essential milestone in the movement of American fiction, from a novelist who has become one of the most important and enduring voices of this generation.
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham —New York
In this beautiful little gem of a novel, Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours, takes us on a tour of New York through the eyes of his protagonist Peter Harris, a successful art dealer, who finds himself questioning everything when he becomes infatuated with his wife’s younger brother. A startlingly immersive book, Cunningham’s witty and observant prose draws you in until you feel as though you, too, are rethinking your life on the streets of New York, New York. In her review for The Guardian, Hermione Lee notes that “Peter Harris finds, before the nightfall we are all moving towards, that the opposition he has been making between divine, visionary art and ordinary humanness – as embodied in the wife and the marriage he has been half taking for granted – is a mistake. The “jewel of self” we all carry about with us while we cross the street or go on errands or do our work, “that self-ember…the simple fact of aliveness, all snarled up with dream and memory”, might be a form of art too.”The whole course of one’s life really can change in an instant.
Peter is forty-four, prosperous, childless, the owner of a big New York apartment, a player in the NY contemporary art dealing scene. He has been married to Rebecca for close on twenty years. Their marriage is sound, in the way marriages are. Peter might even describe himself to be happy. But when Mizzy, Rebecca’s much younger brother, comes to stay, his world is turned upside down. Returning to their New York flat after work one day, Peter sees the outline of Rebecca in the shower. But when he opens the shower door, it is Mizzy he comes face to face with. From that moment on, Mizzy who occupies all of Peter’s thoughts. His fascination with him is erotic but not exactly sexual. Without ever really falling out of love with his wife, he tumbles into love with her brother, and is encouraged that way by the young man.
With traces of the tensions that ripple through Death in Venice, this new novel from Michael Cunningham brilliantly examines the quest for unattainable, and temporal, beauty.
House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros— chicago
Sandra Cisneros’s beautiful coming-of-age novel follows Esperanza, a Latina girl living in Chicago. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Cisneros writes from the heart of a child bluntly and truthfully. Everyone needs this book,” while The New York Times Book Review notes “She is not only a gifted writer but an absolutely essential one.” The House on Mango Street is studied in schools throughout America, and lauded for its tender depiction of immigrant life and coming-of-age in Chicago, Illinois.
Told in a series of vibrant vignettes, The House on Mango Street is the story of Esperanza Cordera, a young girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago. For Esperanza, Mango Street is a desolate landscape of concrete and run-down tenements where she discovers the hard realities of life – the fetters of class and gender, the spectre of racial enmity and the mysteries of sexuality. Capturing her thoughts and emotions in poems and stories, Esperanza is able to rise above hopelessness and create for herself “a house all of my own quiet as snow, a space for myself to go” in the midst of her oppressive surroundings.