Here Are the Must-Read Books of 2020
During a year that’s doled out more downs than ups, books have provided the escapes we’ve needed to get through. To dive deep into the pages of a novel is to immerse yourself in someone else’s life for a while, and these newly published novels gave us plenty of comfort as well as much-needed fresh perspectives in 2020.
Whether you’re looking for novels that make you think, nonfiction that helps broaden your perspective on social issues, or good ole page-turning fiction, there is something for everyone. 2020 was a time of learning, growing, and working to better ourselves and extend our horizons, and these books couldn’t have come at a better time.
1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
“The Vanishing Half” follows the story of twin sisters, Stella and Desiree Vignes, who live in a small Louisiana town named Mallard, which prizes light skin above all else. And the Vignes twins are beloved for their light, “favorable” features, but this doesn’t save the twins from their family’s gruesome fate.
After witnessing the lynching of their father as young girls, they are forever marked by this horrific tragedy. Realizing that Mallard will never offer them the upward mobility they crave, Stella and Desiree escape their tight-knit community, vowing to never return to a town they know has no future for them. They end up in New Orleans, where Stella abandons Desiree for a white man, then Desiree flees to Washington D.C. and marries a dark-skinned man who becomes abusive. Before Desiree’s husband can lay a hand on their daughter, Desiree makes the decision to seek shelter in the last place she thought she’d ever end up: right back where she started. Stella, on the other hand, ends up in Los Angeles, passing as a white woman.
“The Vanishing Half” starts in the ‘50s and wraps up its story in the ‘90s, after Stella and Desiree’s lives once again intertwine in the most unexpected way. Rich with commentary on colorism, identity, and family, “The Vanishing Half” is a breathtaking literary journey you won’t be able to put down. It’s no wonder HBO paid seven figures (after a heated auction with 17 other bidders) for the critically-acclaimed novel.
Buy: The Vanishing Half,
2. Luster by Raven Leilani
In “Luster,” the protagonist is a young Black woman named Edie who quickly finds herself unemployed after a series of cringe-worthy mistakes at her publishing job. But she’s been chatting with an enthralling white man named Eric, who tells her his wife Rebecca has agreed to an open marriage. After running into Rebecca, she decides to take Edie in while Eric is away on business. The agreement is that Edie is allowed to stay in their home if she doesn’t sleep with Eric. However, things become more complicated when Eric and Rebecca’s adopted daughter Akila finds a kind of mentorship presence in Edie, the only Black woman she’s close with.
This book is written in the brutally funny, sharp, and poignant voice that Raven Leilani is known for, covering the messiness of our 20s to the complexities of race and social dynamics in the workplace and in our day-to-day relationships.
3. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Trigger warning: this novel explores sexual abuse and grooming. To be honest, “My Dark Vanessa” was a difficult book to read, but an important one nonetheless. It follows Vanessa Wye, an ambitious teen who begs her parents to let her attend a prestigious private school. After a particularly brutal friendship breakup, Vanessa’s 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, approaches her and offers her what she believed she wasn’t worthy of: attention, love, and admiration. He makes her feel smart, worthy… beautiful, even. But the events that unfold between them are heartbreaking, even sickening at times.
Years later, when Vanessa is in her 30s, Strane faces allegations from multiple young women who claim he sexually abused them. One of these women reaches out to Vanessa, asking for her support. Vanessa is torn, unable to work out her own trauma or allow herself to believe that the man who loved her was a monster.
Buy: My Dark Vanessa,
4. A Burning by Megha Majumdar
In “A Burning,” Jivan, a Muslim girl born into poverty, wants more out of life. She dreams of achieving greatness, and she knows she has the potential to do so. But one day, her dreams are thwarted when she’s accused of committing a terrorist attack due to a flippant comment on Facebook. Jivan’s only hope (and alibi) is Lovely, an endearing loner who can help Jivan get out of the frightening and unfair charges she faces. This novel is a smart and complex look into the lives that are affected by a corrupt society—one that oppresses its people, especially women.
Buy: A Burning,
5. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
In “Leave the World Behind,” married white couple Clay and Amanda and their kids let loose in their beach house rental. Hours away from their small Brooklyn apartment, the family enjoys the luxurious amenities the house has to offer, like a pool, beautiful countertops, and perhaps the ultimate indulgence: privacy. The dream is shattered when the owners of the house, a Black couple, come knocking on the door one night, claiming something frightening is afoot. There’s an unprecedented blackout in New York City, and the couple feels safer coming back to their own home.
Feeling inconvenienced and suspicious (due to reasons they won’t even admit to themselves), Clay and Amanda allow the strangers into the home regardless. As all points of communication are cut, everyone tries to learn what is happening outside their little bubble. Could it be a terrorist attack? World War III? Simply a really bad storm? The families are forced to rely on one another, as one terrifying event follows another. At one point, a deafening boom cracks open the sky and causes Clay and Amanda’s son to become incredibly ill. Flocks of flamingos and deer appear out of nowhere.
“Leave the World Behind” is an apocalyptic horror novel that weaves in themes like race, class, and global turmoil.
Buy: Leave the World Behind,
6. The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
“The Office of Historical Corrections” is a collection of short stories, each of which are so enthralling that you’ll wish they were 200 pages longer. As nuanced as her characters are in each of their snapshots, Evans has a genius knack for knowing how to tell a tight, compelling narrative, with stories ranging from a college student whose photo of herself wearing a Confederate flag bikini goes viral (and her disastrous response), to one woman attempts to fuse together the pieces of her broken, mixed race family, to a historian who uncovers the truth about a racist tragedy that happened long ago and how it affects her now. This is the kind of book you recommend to all your friends this year and the next. Danielle Evans is clearly just getting started.
Buy: The Office of Historical Corrections,
7. Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen
Based on former Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen’s viral essay, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” Petersen fleshes out her essay into this book by diving even deeper into the concept of burnout, its origins, and why it continues to sink its teeth into our collective psyche. Petersen doesn’t just define what “burnout” means—most of us have felt burnout at some point or another, after all. She dissects the term, and teaches her readers why millennials have especially been primed for success, only to become the first generation to actually do worse for themselves than their parents (aka, the concept of upward mobility is dead).
The economic reasons are broken down in a digestible, fascinating way, from the disintegration of unions and long-forgotten benefits like pension plans, to propaganda-like messaging that burns mantras like, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life” deep into our brains. Burnout isn’t a feeling, it’s an American economic failure.
Buy: Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,
8. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
In the beginning of “The Death of Vivek Oji,” we are introduced to Vivek Oji when his mother Kavita opens to the door to find his lifeless body covered in colorful fabric. What happened to her enigmatic son, the love of her life?
Prior to his death, we learn that Vivek Oji was different. He’s sensitive, prefers to grow his hair long (to the chagrin of his traditional Nigerian father), experiments with lipstick and eyeliner, and suffers from inexplicable blackouts. Vivek’s closest ally is his cousin, Osita—but after a surprising revelation, Osita abandons him, perhaps because he sees parts of himself in Vivek and is ashamed. As readers, we know Vivek’s fate from the beginning, but we don’t know precisely what happened until the very end, an explanation that will leave you shocked and shattered.
“The Death of Vivek Oji” examines sexual identity, gender, and, eventually, redemption. It also provides sharp commentary about a culture that refuses to acknowledge the existence of the LGBTQ+ community and the consequences of this.
Buy: The Death of Vivek Oji,
9. Golden Gates by Conor Dougherty
From New York, to Los Angeles, to San Francisco, cities across the U.S. have faced rent and buying prices skyrocketing over the last couple decades (while average incomes have grown stagnant), making it increasingly difficult to make good on that American dream we were spoon-fed as kids. In “Golden Gates,” journalist Conor Dougherty takes a closer look into housing inequality, especially that of the San Francisco Bay Area, a city that’s priced out an astonishing part of the population. How did we get here? How did it become impossible to rent a small one-bedroom apartment in a city like San Francisco, or Oakland, even? How is it possible that in a city that contains so much wealth so many go hungry, without a roof over their heads? Dougherty investigates and interviews residents who share their own stories that prove that some gates may not ever be open for all — and that must change.
Buy: Golden Gates,
10. Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
In “Uncanny Valley,” Anna Wiener describes her time spent working for multiple startups in Silicon Valley—dealing with cocky tech bros, infinite and inexplicable egos, and the promise of immense wealth stemming from uncharted, digital climates. After leaving her low-paying publishing job in New York, Anna is promised the money and the perks of trendy companies run by young CEOs who aim to “disrupt” the industry. The author doesn’t hold back: She shares what it was like being one of few women in a male-dominated workplace that dealt with sexism and harassment on the daily, unbridled recklessness stemming from executive teams that stand to make millions (if not billions). If you want an insider’s look into the West Coast’s Wall Street, “Uncanny Valley” spills it all.
Buy: Uncanny Valley,
11. Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould
Emily Gould, author of “Friendship,” is back with a second novel “Perfect Tunes” that follows Laura, a young woman who comes to New York City to record her first album. There, she falls in love with a brilliant but complicated musician, and although she doesn’t know it at the time, their doomed relationship will follow her for the rest of her life.
The story skips ahead to 15 years later, and Laura has a daughter of her own—a daughter who wants to know who her father is. At the heart of “Perfect Tunes” is a story about growing up, what ambition means and how it changes, the complexities of motherhood, and the things you inevitably sacrifice so the one person you love doesn’t have to make the same mistakes you did, or so you hope.
Buy: Perfect Tunes,
12. Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier
Quirky, heartbreaking, and unexpected, “Pizza Girl” follows an 18-year-old pizza delivery girl who lives in Los Angeles. Grappling with the death of her father and an unexpected pregnancy, our protagonist becomes enthralled with one of her customers, a mother named Jenny whose go-to pizza order always involves pickles. The relationship between the two becomes increasingly unhealthy, as the pizza delivery girl avoids her caring mother and doting boyfriend as they attempt to give her the support they think she needs. But what does she need? This coming-of-age novel is dark and funny, and it’ll twist your heart in ways you didn’t see coming.
Buy: Pizza Girl,
13. Sea Wife by Amity Gaige
In “Sea Wife,” Juliet’s life takes a turn she never expected. While trying to finish her poetry dissertation, her husband decides he wants to quit his job and go live on a sailboat, so the family packs their bags and set sail. Is the ocean what Juliet needed all this time? Her fog of depression has lifted, and her marriage has never been better—but a happiness this precarious may not last forever. Like all transitional stages in life, they require work, tweaking, and nurturing. And when you transition your life to a sailboat, “doing the work” becomes much more, well, complicated.
Buy: Sea Wife,
14. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi stunned us with her first novel “Homegoing,” and she proceeds to pull on our heartstrings again with “Transcendent Kingdom,” a story about family, loss, and faith. The novel follows Gifty, a student at Stanford School of Medicine closely studying the reward-seeking behavior in mice and trying to understand their levels of addiction, depression, wants, and desires. She becomes consumed in this study as a way to answer questions that may never be answered in her personal life.
When her brother is younger, he overdoses on heroin after becoming addicted to opiates that were prescribed to him due to a knee injury. The loss changed not only Gifty, but her mother, who becomes suicidal after the death of her son. Though Gifty throws herself into her studies and science, she also finds herself turning to faith as a way to cope with such deeply unresolved trauma and loss.
Buy: Transcendent Kingdom,
15. Want by Lynn Steger Strong
“Want” is one of those novels that succeeds in pondering many of the questions we as women ask ourselves, who juggle countless responsibilities and strive for success we earnestly feel we deserve. Is it wrong to want more? Is it okay to feel exhausted and dissatisfied even though we should be grateful? Is it wrong to feel trapped in the lives we built for ourselves? In this book, protagonist Elizabeth is a mom and wife with a PhD and two jobs, and yet she finds herself filing for bankruptcy. In her darkest moments, Elizabeth reaches out to a friend she’d always been jealous of, only to learn that she, too, is facing hardships of her own. This reconnection becomes her lifeline as Elizabeth finds herself unraveling to the point of no return.
16. Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Samantha Irby’s newest essay collection is the lighthearted, hilarious, and whip-smart read you need to round out your TBR list. In “Wow, No Thank You,” Irby dives into what it means to get older, become a stepmom, and live in a super white, small town as a woman of color. The 40-year-old hilariously talks about what it means to look at yourself in the mirror and feel uncomfortable with the person you see, something so relatable it kind of hurts. Be prepared to laugh, maybe cry just a little, and re-read the book all over again. Your soul needs this.
Buy: Wow, No Thank You,