10 Great Novels set in New York, NY

The Bonfire of the VanitiesI. The Bonfire of the Vanities [1987] by Tom Wolfe 

Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed novel is set in New York as it tells of a high-flying bond trader Sherman McCoy and his eventual fall from the societal ladder when he is involved in a hit-and-run accident alongside his strikingly-beautiful lover Maria. We get a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the New York’s privileged, while also mull over the lives of the disadvantaged living in the Bronx and those on the media outlets’ outskirts desperate to make a big story whatever it takes. Though, in terms of plot, it probably takes cues from both The Great Gatsby [1925] and the Spanish film Death of a Cyclist [1955], Wolfe’s novel is still a pure joy to read: witty, bitter-sweet and engrossing. One of the chapters is titled The Masque of the Red Death, so there is plenty of nuance and hidden irony.  

Breakfast at Tiffany's Cover BookII. Breakfast at Tiffany’s [1958] by Truman Capote 

What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets” (2001: 36, Capote). Capote’s novella is short, and both sweet and melancholy in a way. It is about Holly Golightly, a stylish, vivacious young woman, living and enjoying life in Manhattan, not even wanting to think of her past, while men who admire her continue to speculate and probe into her mysteries and the secrets to her success. It is an easy read, but no less fascinating for it. 

The Age of Innocence Book CoverIII. The Age of Innocence [1920] by Edith Wharton

But they [the yellow roses] did not look like her [May] – there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty. In a sudden revulsion of mood, and almost without knowing what he did, he signed to the florist to lay the roses in another long box, and slipped his card into a second envelope, on which he wrote the name of Countess Olenska…” (2000: 119, Wharton). No other novel exemplifies so finely the high-society of New York in the 1870s than Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer is a wealthy young gentleman who becomes engaged to the society’s beauty May Welland at the very inopportune time because, just at that time, arrives the exotic Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, and Newland’s feelings for the new woman in his life grow. Beautifully-written, with timeless themes at its core, Wharton’s novel cannot but become one of the American masterworks.

american psycho book coverIV. American Psycho [1991] by Bret Easton Ellis

This controversial story by Bret Easton Ellis is told in the first person by Patrick Bateman, a successful businessman in New York who also happens to be a serial killer, frequently stalking women. However, there are more complex underlying themes and tensions in the novel than first meets the eye, such as the critique of consumerism and capitalism. The main character – Patrick Bateman – may be a delusional psychopath, but the society around is only too quick to nurture his vanity, mental distortions and hedonism. 

Laura Book CoverV. Laura [1942] by Vera Caspary  

This intelligent, morbidly-delightful detective story tells of the murder of a young rising socialite Laura Hunt in her apartment in New York. Laura seems to have been popular in her life and the investigative detective assigned to her case – Mark McPherson – quickly falls under her charm, even if by looking at her portrait and hearing stories about her. The prime suspects in her murder are Waldo Lydecker, a prominent columnist and a friend of Laura, and her fiancé Shelby Carpenter. However, things are not what they seem in this novel, and, coupled with some vivid characterisation, the book also boasts clever interlinks between the characters and a number of unforeseen twists.  

The Beautiful and Damned BookVI. The Beautiful and Damned [1922] by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

The book title probably speaks for itself. This novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald tells of a beautiful, privileged couple in the 1910s New York: Anthony Patch, an heir to a grand fortune, and his new wife – beautiful Gloria Gilbert. The distinct feature of this novel is that the characters are so imperfect: both are selfish beings who pursue their own interests, but there is still sympathy for them because of the world in which they were born. When the couple’s days of partying are over and their money is nearly gone, the duo faces certain hardships and suffers peculiar breakdowns. The novel is as interesting as it is insightful as Fitzgerald uncovers the world of privilege and the corresponding fault.    

The Goldfinch Book CoverVII. The Goldfinch [2013] by Donna Tartt 

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is set in New York and tells of a young boy Theodore whose mother tragically dies in a terrorist attack at the Met, New York. The novel then briefly flies to Nevada, US before returning to New York. At that point it shows Theodore already a young man, but who still clings to the portrait of Fabritius’s The Goldfinch,  which so much reminds him of his mother and which he salvaged when he and his mother were victims of a terrorist attack on that fateful day in New York. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this books is masterful in every way, even though its beginning and the end are more engrossing, as is the case with all three Donna Tartt novels.

Rosemary's Baby CoverVIII. Rosemary’s Baby [1967] by Ira Levin 

Levin’s book is about a couple Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, an aspiring actor, who settle themselves into a nice apartment in the apartment block called the Bramford in New York. However, Rosemary soon notices that their older neighbours are too friendly and some curious rituals are also happening just next door. The novel is eerie and fascinating. The premise is even more horrifying because of the feeling that anyone could encounter a situation happening to Rosemary. In 1968, Polanski made a film based on a novel, which can now be considered as one of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations ever. 

The Bell JarIX. The Bell Jar [1963] by Sylvia Plath 

“I also had a dim idea that if I walked the streets of New York by myself all night something of the city’s mystery and magnificence might rub off on to me at last. But I gave it up” (2005: 99, Plath). Esther Greenwood, an academically bright girl, should be having “the time of her life” in New York, only she does not. Plath’s novel follows Esther from her glamourous internship in New York to suburban Boston as the character reflects on her life and people around her, being more puzzled than satisfied as time passes. Rich in existentialist observation, The Bell Jar is about girl ahead of her time, trying to adjust to the world of extroverts.  

A Kiss Before Dying CoverX. A Kiss Before Dying [1953] by Ira Levin 

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” (old wedding rhyme). This book is not set solely in New York, but it has references to New York and some action takes place on New York streets, such as West Twenty Sixth Street and the Fifth Avenue. In this story, a young man and his girlfriend Dorothy are enjoying their time together, until she finds out that she is pregnant. The novel is so suspenseful, with mind-blowing twists, that is no worse than Levin’s The Stepford Wives or Rosemary’s Baby. Since this is Levin’s first novel, one kind of senses when reading it that much intelligence was put into it to make the story as unpredictable as possible; also check out Sliver by the same author, which shares some similarities with A Kiss Before Dying (at least structurally).  


14 thoughts on “10 Great Novels set in New York, NY

  1. I keep wanting to read Rosemary’s Baby, but I saw the movie and it was so disturbing I’ve just been putting off reading it. Personally, my favorite books set in New York City are the Gaslight Mystery series by Victoria Thompson (starting with Murder on Astor Place). There are so many great books set in this city!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Gaslight Mysteries are probably not on my list because I have not read any. Thanks for the suggestion, and I will definitely be now adding them on my to-read list. And, you are right, there are tons of books to choose from to make such a list.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Diana – I have not read the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but i’m thinking maybe I should. I saw the film a long time ago. I watched the film again recently. I thought it was charming and beautifully done. It’s sort of a postcard to New York. The shots of avenues and streets and Central Park are great. The score is haunting and just right for the film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, too. I think I actually prefer the movie to the book. But I also enjoyed the book, it was a quick read and tried to show the psychology behind that vivid personage that is Holly Golightly. I cannot say it is my favourite book, but it is worth reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I”m drawn over here by comments you made on Cathy’s Blog (746 Books). Interesting lists! I’ve read 7 on your list.

    Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a wonderful, marvelous novella but it is nothing like the movie – fwiw. I’m surprised I’ve never read Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying because I read a lot by him (back in the day). My favorite NY novel is probably Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin – it’s historical fiction – or maybe Dreamland by Kevin Baker.

    I’m going to have to make my own list. It might have Don DeLillo on there for some book – Underworld most likely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this comment! I actually made a ranking list of all Ira Levin’s novels and now consider “A Kiss Before Dying” his most essential read (maybe after “Rosemary’s Baby”): https://thoughtsonpapyrus.com/2019/10/18/ira-levins-novels-ranked/ The book is really quite something, so I highly recommend!

      I never read either Winter’s Tale or Dreamland, but both sound amazing, thanks! And, DeLillo would be a great addition, I agree!


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