The Best Books of 2020
Real Simple's Editors have vetted dozens of books to compile our top picks—the 2020 books we think you should buy or add to your to-read pile. From memoir, literary fiction, riveting psychological thrillers, original historical fiction, thought-provoking nonfiction, and so much more. Here were some of the buzziest, timeliest books we encountered.
Rest and Be Thankful by Emma Glass
Rest and Be Thankful, the achingly beautiful second novel by Emma Glass, is a glimpse into the innermost thoughts of Laura, a pediatric nurse teetering on the edge of burnout. While the story is brief, Glass, who's a practicing nurse herself, convincingly details what it's like to be pushed to exhaustion and still willing to sacrifice anything, possibly even yourself, for your patients.
Take It Back by Kia Abdullah
Zara Kaleel is a brilliant London attorney who left her prestigious career to be a caseworker at a sexual assault center. When she takes on a new client, a white teenage girl with facial deformities who's accused four Muslim classmates of rape, Zara finds herself at the center of a high-profile case. A fast-paced courtroom drama, Take It Back by Kia Abdullah asks tough questions about race, class, and gender while keeping you guessing until the (truly shocking) last page.
To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss
The 10 stories in To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss, set in locations around the world, feature some of life's most intimate moments—a young woman discovers her sexual power, a daughter visits her father's home after his death. All the stories explore a central theme: What makes us who we are? They're intriguing, familiar, and ripe for discussion. In other words, they're book-club gold.
Survival of the Thickest by Michelle Buteau
Survival of the Thickest, the new memoir by comedian and actor Michelle Buteau, is hilarious—like, snap-a-photo-of-a-page-and-send-it-to-friends funny. But this bracingly honest essay collection, in which Buteau insightfully reflects on everything from her body image to her interracial marriage to her difficult road to motherhood, is ultimately about the brave act of learning to love yourself.
The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell'Antonia
In teensy Merinac, Kansas, two fried chicken shacks have had a longstanding rivalry. Nobody knows it better than Amanda, who grew up in one restaurant before marrying into the other. When a reality TV competition pits the two— as well as Amanda and her sister, Mae—against each other, the sisters discover that the stakes are much higher than the $100,000 prize. The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell'Antonia is a delightful look at sibling relationships and the unbreakable bonds of family.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
Danielle Evans's The Office of Historical Corrections is a powerful novella and short-story collection that zeroes in on transformative moments for various characters—like when a white college student discovers that a photo of herself in a Confederate-flag bikini has gone viral. The result is a piercing look at race and culture, revealing how we all must reckon with our personal and shared histories.
I'll Be Seeing You by Elizabeth Berg
I'll Be Seeing You is Elizabeth Berg's memoir of moving her parents out of their home and into assisted living due to her father's Alzheimer's. It beautifully recounts her mom and dad's final years while sharing the story of their seven-decade romance. This is Berg's loving portrait of her family over time, and a bracingly honest exploration of the emotions that arise when caring for aging parents.
White Ivy by Susie Yang
Ivy Lin knows how she's perceived: She's a quiet, obedient Chinese American teen. Nobody would suspect her of shoplifting, much less harboring a crush on Gideon Speyer, the son of a wealthy political family. When fate brings them together years later, her obsession with having him—and everything that comes with his privilege—grows dark and all-consuming. Susie Yang's White Ivy cleverly overturns the "model minority" stereotype with a deliciously twisty story that will leave you breathless.
Cobble Hill by Cecily von Ziegesar
A school nurse, a boy band alum, a mom who fakes an illness so she can stay in bed all day, and a husband who refuses to remove his noise-canceling headphones are just a few of the wacky, lovable characters in Cobble Hill by Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the Gossip Girl series. The novel reads like literary people-watching, chronicling the lives of four families in a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood where the picture-perfect brownstones belie what's really going on.
Memorial by Bryan Washington
In Memorial, the debut novel by Bryan Washington (whose story collection, Lot, was a favorite of President Obama's), Mike and Benson are in a withering relationship they're not sure is worth saving. When Mike suddenly leaves for Japan to be with his dying father, the separation forces both men to wonder whether the people they're becoming are meant to be together. This sensitive novel illustrates the deeply individual ways we search for a sense of home.
Just Like You by Nick Hornby
Lucy is a 40-something white mother of two. Joseph is a 22-year-old Black aspiring DJ. When they meet at the London butcher shop where Joseph works, they're caught off-guard by their feelings for each other, and nearly as baffled by their awkward courtship as their wide-eyed friends and family are. Just Like You by Nick Hornby is a sweet and funny testament to the wonderful things that happen when you allow yourself to follow your heart.
Once I Was You by Maria Hinojosa
Once I Was You is a candid, timely autobiography by Emmy Award–winning journalist and NPR anchor Maria Hinojosa. Drawing on her Mexican family's relocation to the U.S. and her experience in media, Hinojosa tells the searing story of how our immigration policy came to be—and what it means for every single American. Intimate and unflinching, this memoir is packed with teachable moments.
The Talented Miss Farwell by Emily Gray Tedrowe
Rebecca Farwell is leading a double life. In Pierson, Illinois, she's Becky, the diligent, kind of dull town treasurer who lives alone in her family's farmhouse. But her creative number crunching with the town's money funds her alter ego's obsession for acquiring art. As Reba, she's a champagne-sipping, couture-wearing shark who's made millions in the art scene in New York and Chicago. Inspired by a true story, Emily Gray Tedrowe's The Talented Miss Farwell is a read-it-to-believe-it page-turner about a con artist whose luck can't last.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
In The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, a fantasy novel by V.E. Schwab, a young woman in 18th-century France escapes an arranged marriage by making a bargain with the devil for the ultimate freedom: She'll be immortal...but no one she meets will ever remember her. Then one day in a bookstore, after 300 years of loneliness, she meets a man who recognizes her. Everything changes, revealing just how much we need connection after all.
Dear Child by Romy Hausmann
This chilling, clever mystery begins where most suspense stories end: with the escape. When a woman flees the windowless shack where she's been held captive, she says she's Lena, who disappeared almost 14 years ago—she even has the distinctive scar to prove it. But her parents insist she's not their missing daughter. The deliciously creepy Dear Child by Romy Hausmann is deftly crafted and keeps you guessing until the very last page.
The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager
After her husband died, MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager found herself widowed at 40 and a single mom of two boys. In The Smallest Lights in the Universe, she passionately describes her struggle to balance the job that had always been her identity with her new challenges at home. It's a beautifully written portrayal of life after loss—and the wonder that happens when you least expect it.
A Knock at Midnight by Brittany K. Barnett
When she entered law school, Brittany K. Barnett had plans for a career in corporate law. But one night in the library, she read about a single mom serving a life sentence for a first-time drug offense—and knew she couldn't ignore the reminders of her own mom's incarceration. A Knock at Midnight, the riveting story of Barnett's tireless work, is proof that one person can transform a broken system.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
In Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford whose family has been struck by tragedy: Her brother has died from a heroin overdose, and her mother is suicidal. Gifty copes by turning to science for answers, but in doing so, she finds herself drawn back to her childhood faith. Like Gyasi's Homegoing, this novel will stay with you long after you've finished it.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
A failed bank robber bursts into an apartment during an open house and takes everyone hostage, but are any of the troubled strangers—now forced to get to know one another—quite who they say they are? Fredrik Backman's Anxious People is an endlessly entertaining mood booster, with a spot-on message about showing up for others, even if you've just met.
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
In the 18th and 19th centuries, British convicts were shipped to Australia, and 25,000 of them were women. Christina Baker Kline's The Exiles imagines the stories of two of them, along with that of an orphaned Aboriginal girl. Celebrating the bonds between women, the novel explores how lives that seem destined for pain might persevere.
What You Wish For by Katherine Center
In Katherine Center's What You Wish For, school librarian Samantha Casey's world is shaken up when the beloved principal is replaced by her former crush—now a safety-obsessed stiff. As they work together and learn about the suffering they've both endured, they find that even in hard times, joy is at our disposal.
Fast Girls by Elise Hooper
Fast Girls by Elise Hooper blends fact and fiction to tell the stories of three trailblazing American women and their quest to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Told in intricate detail, against the backdrop of a world on the brink of war, the novel shines a light on these long-overlooked athletes.
Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford
In Notes on a Silencing, Lacy Crawford recounts being sexually assaulted as a student at an elite New England prep school. Decades later, the school comes under investigation for its handling of such cases. Maddening and timely, this memoir reveals the cost to victims—and society at large—when powerful institutions protect their reputations, not their pupils.
The Golden Cage by Camilla Läckberg
In The Golden Cage by Camilla Läckberg, one of Europe's best-selling crime novelists, Faye and Jack meet in business school, marry, have a kid, and build a billion-dollar business. But when the brash (and maybe diabolical) Faye discovers Jack's affair, she shows how far she'll go to get what is rightfully hers. Sexy, scandalous, and terrifying, this is the kind of suspense story you gobble up in one sitting.
Mother Land by Leah Franqui
Rachel Meyer is an adventurous 30-something New Yorker who has recently moved to Mumbai with her Indian-born husband when her mother-in-law leaves her decades-long marriage…and moves in with them. Leah Franqui's Mother Land is a charming, tender examination of how two women with deeply ingrained differences find their middle ground.
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
Zaina Arafat's debut novel, You Exist Too Much, traces an unnamed protagonist's unexpected journey from her home in Bethlehem to a DJ booth in Brooklyn, New York; from the streets of Lebanon to a love addiction clinic. Written in the first person with a memoir feel, this international tale sheds a unique light on what it means to find love across boundaries.
The Last Flight by Julie Clark
In the thriller The Last Flight by Julie Clark, two women try to escape their lives by switching airplane tickets. Claire is married to the scion of a political dynasty, whose staff watches her every move. She swaps flights with Eva—but then Eva's plane crashes. Claire, presumed dead by her family, is given a chance at a new life, and what unfolds brings everything she knows into question.
Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan
J. Courtney Sullivan's Friends and Strangers follows Elisabeth, who relocates from New York City to a small town with her struggling inventor husband and infant son. She hires Sam, a senior at the local women's college, to babysit. Over the course of the school year, the two women grow close, share secrets, and ultimately betray each other.
Empty by Susan Burton
In Empty, Susan Burton recounts how binge-eating disorder and anorexia have jeopardized her life. Despite her outward success—admission to Yale, a dream job at This American Life, a happy family—her secret made her a prisoner in her own body. After a three-decade battle, Susan finally sought help and opened up. She reveals it all in this frank, beautiful account of her mental health journey.
All My Mother's Lovers by Ilana Masad
All My Mother's Lovers by Ilana Masad explores how wrong we can be about those we love. After the death of her mother, Iris, Maggie returns home to discover that Iris has left five sealed envelopes for mysterious men. As Maggie embarks on a road trip to deliver the letters and cope with her grief, she finds that Iris, never comfortable with her daughter's sexuality, had a secret life all her own.
Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner
Plus-size Instagrammer Daphne Berg has worked hard to love herself just as she is, and it's paid off with a devoted tribe of followers. But when her former best friend—the very one who humiliated her in high school—shows up with a favor to ask for her Cape Cod wedding, Daphne is forced to decide whether she's ready to forgive. Jennifer Weiner's Big Summer is an insightful page-turner about the power of old friendships.
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon
In this unique tale, Anna Solomon interweaves the stories of three women negotiating their places in the world: Esther, a young tribeswoman in ancient Persia; Vivian, a political wife hurt by sexism in Watergate-era D.C.; and Lily, a dissatisfied modern-day stay-at-home mom. The Book of V. asks complicated questions about power, desire, and the evolution of women's roles.
Like Crazy by Dan Mathews
Dan Mathews knew he was in for an adventure when he relocated his 78-year-old mother across the country to live with him. What he didn't know was that her often unpredictable behavior was due to an undiagnosed disorder: schizophrenia. Like Crazy is a deeply compassionate and occasionally hilarious look at what it means to care for a parent as they enter the last phase of life.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Imagine if Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton had broken up after law school. That's what bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld does in her novel Rodham. Weaving together real-life events and coulda-shoulda moments, Sittenfeld spins a compelling tale about women in politics, compromise, and the fateful pull that unites Bill and Hillary.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
Ana, a whip-smart woman who wants to be a scholar and writer, meets and marries Jesus (yes, that Jesus) in The Book of Longings. Sue Monk Kidd skips historians' 2,000-year-old "Did Jesus marry?" debate, imagines he did, and asks, "So what would his wife have been like?" Inserting Ana into biblical stories, Kidd crafts a surprising, absorbing narrative.
A Hundred Suns by Karin Tanabe
In Karin Tanabe's A Hundred Suns, Jessie has left 1930s Paris for Hanoi so her Michelin-heir husband can join the family business. She falls in with expats who tell her about workers' deplorable conditions on Michelin's plantations—and indulge her with opium. While confronting the source of her wealth, Jessie must parse what's real and what's not.
This Is Big by Marisa Meltzer
In This Is Big, journalist Marisa Meltzer interweaves her personal dieting history with a compelling biography of Jean Nidetch, the woman who founded Weight Watchers. As the author chronicles her own journey through the popular program, she describes how Nidetch—despite getting and staying thin—struggled at home and at work. In the end, Meltzer learns and grows in unexpected ways.
Pretty Things by Janelle Brown
Janelle Brown's Pretty Things is a page-turner about scammers and social media. Swindler Nina needs to score big—her mom's medical bills are looming, and she's still waiting on $72,000 from her last con job. She and her partner decide to target their riskiest mark yet: Vanessa, a woman from Nina's past who is now an Instagram influencer. But there's far more to Vanessa than what appears on her feed.
Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
Elizabeth Wetmore's powerful first novel, Valentine, recounts the aftermath of a brutal rape in a Texas oil town in 1976. Via shifting perspectives—including those of Gloria, the survivor, and Mary Rose, the housewife who finds her the morning after—Valentine explores the women's connections and traces the gossip and blame that follow the crime.
The Herd by Andrea Bartz
The glamorous founder of a women's coworking space vanishes on the eve of a huge news conference in Andrea Bartz's The Herd. Police initially figure Eleanor has run off to Mexico, but those closest to her suspect otherwise. This thriller offers a nonstop plot and layers of mystery—not to mention smart commentary on female friendships and social media.
The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
In The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai traces a half century of Vietnam's history through the stories of Tran Dieu Lan, who loses her livelihood during the 1950s land reform, and her granddaughter Huong, who comes of age in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. This poetic novel illustrates how their sacrifices ripple through the family.
House Lessons by Erica Bauermeister
Erica Bauermeister and her husband had set out to buy a turnkey house in remote Port Townsend, Washington. They ended up falling in love with a dilapidated four-bedroom and its "Darwinian" yard. House Lessons, Bauermeister's memoir-in-essays, details her years of renovation and the ways she changed in the process.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Fans of Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 hit, Station Eleven, will devour her next novel. The Glass Hotel follows the rise and fall of a Ponzi scheme, showing how two siblings' lives entangle with that of the fraudster. With this highly readable narrative that switches perspectives, Mandel has written what might be the novel about the 2008 financial crisis—and the mentalities and greed that caused it.
Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman
At 50, Judy reaches an all-time low. Cleaning out her basement, she finds her son's old baby sling, takes one look at the dog, and pops her in for immediate comfort. Over the course of Laura Zigman's Separation Anxiety, Judy navigates unsteadiness and grief—for her career, her marriage, her friend's cancer, her son's growing up and away from her—toward a deeply affecting conclusion.
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
On the eve of her 19th birthday in 1982, Oona watches the clock hit midnight—and confusedly comes to as her future 51-year-old self. From then on, every birthday, she randomly ping-pongs to another year of her life. Margarita Montimore's Oona Out of Order is a touching novel that keeps readers guessing where Oona's choices will take her.
The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley
Clare Pooley's heartwarming novel, The Authenticity Project, asks how we might live if we had no fear. One day, aging artist Julian jots some secrets in a notebook and leaves it for a stranger to find. Monica picks it up and is inspired to write down her own—and find Julian. As the notebook changes hands, it changes the people who reveal themselves in it.
You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe
Biographies of our founding fathers are mostly written by men, for men, Alexis Coe points out in You Never Forget Your First. Her cheeky, engaging biography of George Washington dispels popular myths (no, he didn't free his slaves) and examines previous historians' gender bias, particularly when it came to Washington's wife and mother.
When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann
After her wealthy industrialist father died, Ariana Neumann found a small box of his letters and papers, including his boyhood photo ID—printed with a name she didn't recognize. In her evocative memoir, When Time Stopped, Neumann discovers her Jewish roots and pieces together the incredible, heartbreaking family history her father never told her.
Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes by Kathleen West
Kathleen West's Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes is a page-turning romp about competitive parenting and how easily scandals blow up online and IRL. Helicopter mom Julia is all too eager to score an invite to a private Facebook group for high school parents and pile on a teacher accused of pushing a political agenda. But soon—inevitably and hilariously—that same group comes for her.
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende's A Long Petal of the Sea is an immersive read about love and survival. The story follows Victor and Roser, who flee Spain as the Spanish Civil War ends in 1939. He was a soldier; she's pregnant with his late brother's baby. Slowly they fall in love and build a stable life in Santiago, Chile, only to be cast into upheaval again 34 years later, when Chile's democracy ends with a coup.
Friendship by Lydia Denworth
Friendship takes a fascinating deep dive into the societal, emotional, and health benefits of our everyday relationships. Science journalist Lydia Denworth investigates the crucible of teenage friendships, observes a social network of rhesus monkeys, and inspires readers to nurture their inner circles and reconnect with old pals.
Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown
A cookbook connects two women, decades apart, in Karma Brown's Recipe for a Perfect Wife. In 2018, Alice has left her job as a publicist and is feeling aimless in a new house when she finds a cookbook that belonged to Nellie in the 1950s. Paging through, she learns more about Nellie's marriage, which doesn't seem so different from her own. Switching between Alice's and Nellie's worlds, Brown deftly unravels their stories.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age tackles big issues—race, class, employer-caregiver tensions—through a riveting story: Emira is confronted by a security guard who doesn't believe that she, a black woman holding a white toddler, is babysitting. Horrified on Emira's behalf, the toddler's mom, Alix, a wannabe momfluencer, sets out to offer help where it isn't wanted. So begins a tale of cringey overstepping and terrible secrets.
Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey
In this perceptive, biting debut novel that's perfect for Sally Rooney fans, readers follow an unnamed narrator over two decades of her life via conversations she has with other women about desire, relationships, sex, and motherhood. There's much to relate to and dogear in this slim book.
Followers by Megan Angelo
Debut author Megan Angelo skewers social media and celebrity culture in her debut dystopian novel, Followers. In alternating chapters, we follow New York City celebrity blogger Orla in 2015 as she conspires to make her roommate Floss famous—and enjoy the perks that go along with that. In 2051, Marlow is a government-controlled celebrity who lives her life for public consumption and corporate sponsorship. How these women are connected will keep you completely enraptured from start to finish. This is sure to be one of the biggest books of the winter.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
In Ann Napolitano's Dear Edward, a 12-year-old boy is the sole survivor of a plane crash and must put the pieces of his life back together while dealing with media fascination and overwhelming fame. Napolitano weaves Edward's devastating post-crash experience with heart-pounding chapters set during the final hours and minutes of the flight. Though there's so much tragedy and loss in this novel, there is also a lot of hope.
Why We Can't Sleep by Ada Calhoun
In Why We Can't Sleep, an expansion of her viral O magazine essay, "The New Midlife Crisis," journalist Ada Calhoun looks at how factors like housing prices, the recession, and societal trends have led an entire generation of Gen X women (those sandwiched between Boomers and Millennials) to feel dissatisfied and stuck in their lives and careers. Interviewing a diverse group women across the country, Calhoun brings a quiet crisis to light and offers solutions for her peers. Why We Can't Sleep isn't just a book for Gen X women though–every woman will take something away from this.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Though Philadelphia police officer Mickey is estranged from her sister Kacey, a heroin addict and sex worker, she tries to keep an eye on her when she patrols the streets. When Kacey goes missing and Mickey's fellow cops dismiss her disappearance, Mickey goes looking for her alone. Long Bright River is equal parts timely thriller, incredibly researched police procedural, and compassionate literary novel about sisterhood, addition, and family secrets that satisfies from start to finish.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
After a drug cartel kills her husband and 15 family members, Lydia takes her young son, Luca, on the dangerous journey from Acapulco, Mexico, to the U.S. border—trailed the whole way by the head of the cartel. From the explosive first chapter to the last, Jeanine Cummins's American Dirt unfolds at a breakneck pace to tell a stunning, heart-wrenching story.