5 Fiction Books Set in San Francisco

If New York City’s literary themes are all about career ambition skyrocketing, the divide between the rich and the poor, crime, and claustrophobia sensed and caused by numerous tightly-built skyscrapers, San Francisco’s literary themes tend to focus on rights and liberties, the Gold Rush and immigrants’ stories. Below I am highlighting ten books set in San Francisco, US and see also my short review of this amazing non-fiction book about San Francisco: Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City [2020] by Gary Kamiya & Paul Madonna.

Martin Eden [1908] by Jack London

This semi-autobiographical book by Jack London is set in San Francisco and tells of one poor and uneducated sailor who gets charmed by the prospect of education, culture and literary career, especially when he gets acquainted with sophisticated daughter of a well-to-do man – Ruth Morse. This powerful book with one penetrating character study is now criminally under-read and must be one of the best, if not the best, work(s) of the American novelist. There is also a book now in print Jack London’s San Francisco Stories, published by Sydney Samizdat Press and released in 2010.

House of Sand and Fog [1999] by Andre Dubus III 

This is the first book on my list which documents an immigrant’s experience. In this story set in the San Francisco Bay Area, a struggling woman Kathy Nicolo loses her home because of her allegedly unpaid taxes. At the same time, a retired colonel of the Iranian Air Force sets his sights on acquiring Kathy’s bungalow and “fulfilling” his American Dream. The battle of wits and patience soon emerges. This book was both a National Book Award finalist and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee, and I also recommend the film of 2003 based on this book and starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly. 

The Maltese Falcon [1929] by Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett wrote an unputdownable crime novel. In Depression-era San Francisco, Samuel Spade, a private eye detective, acquires a new client – mysterious Bridget O’Shaughnessy (who also apparently goes under other names). Soon, he is entangled in a web of murders and deceit, and everything soon revolves around a priceless statuette – the Maltese Falcon. The book is also now known as a film of 1941 with Humphrey Bogart in the role of Sam Spade and Mary Astor in the role of his client. That film is also indebted to its original counterpart The Maltese Falcon (1931), starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels.

The Joy Luck Club [1989] by Amy Tan

The lives of immigrants in San Francisco is at the core of Amy Tan’s book. In this story, four Chinese women who have only recently arrived to San Francisco start their own club playing mah-jong and cooking their traditional food. These four women have four daughters who long for more American lives for themselves and their families. Amy Tan explores these mother-daughter connections from interesting angles, as well as cultural differences and “generation gap” issues. This is a beautiful book with a powerful message.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club [2021] by Malinda Lo

This is the final book on my list that documents the experience of immigrants (second/third generation) – Chinese American. This is a new historical YA novel set in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1954. Lily Lu and Kathleen Miller are in love and frequent a lesbian bar called The Telegraph Club. However, the times are not in their favour and “red-scare” politics threaten their relationship.

Do you know any books set in San Francisco? Perhaps you have a favourite one?

8 thoughts on “5 Fiction Books Set in San Francisco

  1. Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
    I’ve read only “The Joy Luck Club” from this list, but the others are going on my TBR. I fell in love with and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area 36 years ago and still enjoy reading books set here.

    Another recommendation for this list: “Flower Drum Song,” by C.Y. Lee. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it explores not only the immigrant experience but also the cultural fallout of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Highly recommended.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I highly recommend Martin Eden. Previously knowing Jack London mainly for his adventure stories, most of which I read as a child, I did not quite expect Martin Eden to be what it turned out to be and was impressed by the depth of writing and character portrayal there. I read it for the first time in 2019 and it was one of my best reads of the year.

      Liked by 2 people

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