There are lots of great literary novels out there, but these are five I highly recommend you take a look at!
1. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch is one of the ten best books I’ve ever read. Sometimes literary novels have such a focus on the beauty of the prose that the story gets lost, but Tartt has a remarkable ability to blend strong writing with a consistently entertaining story. Her style of writing is as specific as it is highly approachable. Almost every page offered at least one sentence that wowed me. Every character is sharply drawn — from the protagonist Theo to his friend Boris to the thugs in Amsterdam. The way Tartt keeps the painting The Goldfinch an important element throughout the narrative is impressive, and I loved that the novel mixes various genres, like coming-of-age, literary fiction, thriller, and, I’d argue, young adult. Overall, The Goldfinch impressed me all the way through.
2. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
I absolutely loved this literary book. A few elements separate this novel from a typical supermarket-selling adult murder mystery, and the stylish prose is certainly one of them. The second literary quality is the choice of omniscient point-of-view, which allows for these stylish prose as well as the ability to go into any character’s head whenever she wants. Author Ng is able to create a whole world with this point-of-view choice, giving us so much when something like first-person from one character never could have done the job. Another literary quality is the emphasis on backstory. Again, many authors would have been perfectly willing to have this entire narrative play out in the present, showing how this family reacts to Lydia’s death, and that would have made a strong novel to be sure. But about half of this book takes place in flashback, building up the backstory of all the characters, and this strategy not only adds terrific tension to the current events but also allows for worthwhile character development.
3. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye is one of the most highly regarded works by Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison, and it’s easy to see why. This is a gorgeous, unusual, affecting novel, Morrison’s first to be published. I sat down expecting a book all told from the perspective of eleven-year-old Pecola, and the first big surprise I admired was Morrison’s ambitious and playful use of POV. The unusual POV structure is a central literary element of this book, but there are others. Early in this short novel, Morrison stops the narrative to deliver setting details of the city for three whole pages. And the style of her prose is always striking, using short, punchy sentences when writing in first person, and more stylized sentences when talking in third, I was also impressed by the frank and involving discussion about race throughout, Morrison never shying away from the truth. These issues make up so much of what the book is about — uncertain identity, fear of the other — and Morrison explores them in great depth and detail.
4. The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
The Little Stranger is a fantastically spooky horror novel, and I love its many literary qualities. The first literary quality I admired was its attention to setting, which often relates to Hundreds Hall. A non-literary horror novel would make mention of a few of the house’s qualities, but not as many as Waters makes the time for early in the book, again, allowing the estate to become its own major character. A second literary quality in the book is its focus on character rather than plot. Unlike many horror novels that focus on a series of scary moments and increasingly tense actions made by the main characters, The Little Stranger is always more concerned with making the reader care about the characters before anything unfortunate happens to them. A third literary quality is the quality of the prose, which is often striking and memorable. It must be noted of course that Waters never goes overboard with stylish prose; even in her sections of big, block paragraphs, her sentences are imaginative but readable, a little wordy but clear, never outrageous in its pursuit of the truth.
5. Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh
Eileen is a terrific literary thriller well worth a read. First, the novel is literary in its focus on character over plot, and I would argue it’s most literary in this regard. The book has a harrowing finale with a major twist, but Moshfegh is much more interested in the journey Eileen takes to get there. The book is literary for its stylish prose, as well, especially when it comes to description, and the historical time period — Christmas 1964 — makes for a literary element as well. One tremendous aspect of the book is Eileen herself, one of the most disturbed and compelling protagonists I’ve read in a work of fiction in a long time. Eileen is darkly funny, always smart, and sometimes vicious in the way she thinks, and I loved every minute spending time with her. This one’s definitely well worth a read!