This was a challenging year for many reasons. But it was also a year where many of us rose to those challenges, shaking off our complacency and examining our biases to become better cultural participants. Or at least more aware ones. Which is partly what made reading so exciting this year. Inspired by the still disappointing VIDA numbers, which track gender representation in print media and review outlets, 2014 became, for many, the year of reading women. At a time when the question of likability is still on everyone’s tongues, I was struck more than ever by the risks so many female authors are taking, which may be why so many of them made my final list. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good year for the men too, particularly those making their debuts with big sweeping books of America, as a place and a concept. But ultimately what made reading in 2014 such a pleasure was the sheer variety of stories begin told. So without further ado, here are my five best fiction books for the year:
The Best Fiction of 2014
1. Euphoria by Lily King
There’s been a small wave recently of books about well-meaning doctors and researchers traveling into the wild unknown. But while many of those are “big” books in length and theme, King’s little jewel of a novel captivates by careful calculation. Adapting the true story of Margaret Mead and her research in New Guinea, Euphoria is as heady as the jungles it so perfectly captures. In documenting both a passionate love triangle and the inherent difficulties of anthropological work, it becomes a book where the emotional is indistinguishable from the intellectual, a romance of the earth instead of the stars.
2. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I’ve found many dystopian novels remote and emotionally inert but this one is lovely, incredibly human. A love note to the way we live now, it’s a very well realized book and the sections that trace the spread of the mysterious flu that wipes out 99.9% of the world population and the early years of the new world manage to be unsparing and delicate at the same time. Mandel weaves a lot of seemingly disparate threads together with ease and if some of the plot’s mysteries are easily solvable and parts of the denouement lacking in suspense, I’m not particularly bothered by it. The overall spell she casts is stunning enough.
3. 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
Marie is a friend but I know I’d love this book even if we were complete strangers. It’s warm but not stifling, sweet but never cloying, as bright a treasure as the Tiffany boxes its cover replicates, and a perfect encapsulation of Marie’s personality which is one of the most generous in the writing world. In telling the story of three lonely people — an 8-year-old aspiring jazz singer, a recently divorced schoolteacher, and the owner of a failing club in Philly — over one enchanted evening, it’s both melancholic and energetic, a book about coming together just as everything is falling apart. And the joy and communal spirit of music has rarely been described better on the page. It’s almost Christmas Eve Eve, which is the perfect time to start reading it if you haven’t yet.
4. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
This is one of those big sweeping stories of America I was talking about. While it begins with one central figure, Pete, a social worker in Montana struggling with sobriety and a recent separation from his wife and daughter, it soon spins outward to follow the lives of those he’s affected, for better but often for worse. Though it hits on many showy relevant themes (the rise of survivalism, income inequality, the wreckage of drug and alcohol abuse), it’s at its best when it’s close to its characters, all of whom felt like people I had never read about before. Ultimately it’s a book about responsibility, which can feel like too rare a subject these days.
5. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
This book can be read in a weekend. Twice. But to rush through it would be to deprive yourself of one of its greatest virtues: the precision Offill demonstrates in revealing information. This is not a book of plot but emotion, a missive straight from the bruised heart of a failing marriage. But it’s equally about the work women must do, as mothers, as wives, and as people with needs and ambitions of their own. The language is tactile and specific, the characters glittering all the more for the cracks they display. While the work is small in stature, I’ve no doubt its reputation will continue to grow.
Yet this small list feels like a meager representation of what was another banner year for fiction. So before we part I’d like to give a quick shout-out to some other great 2014 books that just missed the cut, along with some excellent non-new release titles that I discovered for the first time this year. In the first category, make some time in 2015 for We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, California by Edan Lepucki, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, and Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique, as I suspect all will still be part of the cultural conversation well into the new year. As for the second, I was captivated by Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, amused by Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country, comforted by Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, dazzled by Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, and devastated by James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, the last of which remains sadly relevant as a chronicle of marginalized but desperately needed voices. And though this was a fiction only list, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, which had so much impact on how I thought about gender, race, and sexuality this year.