These books caught the world’s eye with their dazzling characters and rich interpretations of American life.
1Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This reimagining of the story of the Underground Railroad follows Cora, a strong and independent teenager, as she escapes her abusive plantation and journeys north. In the America Whitehead creates in the novel, each state Cora travels through is its own distinct world. Through vivid descriptions he touches on the racial horrors that freed slaves once went through, and the connection this period in time has to the racial divides in America today.
To buy: $16; amazon.com.
2The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This debut novel from Viet Thanh Nguyen, a story about love, friendship, and betrayal set during the Vietnam War, took the nation by storm with its suspenseful prose. The tale is told from the perspective of a communist double agent, a French-Vietnamese spy who comes to America following the Fall of Saigon. While he appears to be building a life with other refugees in America, he’s secretly in touch with the communists in Vietnam. Through this thrilling tale, Nguyen addresses the struggles of identity, love, and loyalty in a post-war world.
To buy: $20; amazon.com.
Related article: This book just won the Pulitzer — here’s why you have to read it
3All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This masterful novel about empathy, history, and the repercussions of choices beyond our control, tells the story of two seemingly disconnected children during the outbreak of World War II: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who lives with her father in Paris, and Werner, a German orphan recruited into the Nazi Youth. Though they do not know each other, a precious jewel inevitably intertwines their stories in an enthralling mystery. Doerr’s short and sparse chapters and vivid scenes create a thrilling page-turner that will stay with you for years to come.
To buy: $14; amazon.com.
4The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
At 13, Theo Decker visits a New York art museum with his mother. Then a terrorist attack hits, leaving his mother dead. Though Theo survives, he somehow stumbles out from the debris with a small painting by Carel Fabritius in hand. In this expansive coming-of-age story, Tartt details how this casual decision upends Theo’s life and sends him onto a listless track of crime, addiction, and anxiety. Spanning decades, Tartt’s exciting take on the bildungsroman explores the ideas of loss, adventure, and the resiliency of humans.
To buy: $18; amazon.com.
5The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
While the Pulitzer typically goes to stories that illustrate the meaning of living an American life, this thrilling tale brings readers into the government of one of the most mysterious nations in the world: North Korea. Pak Jun Do is given a taste of power at a young age at the orphanage his father runs. Through the years, he ascends the government ranks until he becomes a professional kidnapper, who must do whatever he is told in order to stay alive. Set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most corrupt nations, Johnson tells of ordinary human struggles—love, pushing the limits, and lost innocence.
To buy: $18; amazon.com.