Let’s first address the proverbial elephant in the room — or on the page, rather: When it comes to art, “best” is entirely subjective. And yet, we love lists, and there’s undeniable value in learning which books have been widely adored and, maybe, awash in awards and critical praise this year. So here are my 10 picks for the best of 2022, with eight additional titles for good measure. Feel free to agree or disagree, and offer your own favorite reads of the year in the comments section below.
Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge, brings back Lucy Barton, the somewhat traumatized, sympathetic older woman readers first fell in love with in 2016’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, then more so in last year’s Oh William!, short-listed for the 2022 Booker Prize. Here Lucy and her ex-husband, William, flee their homes in New York City to isolate together in a seaside house in Maine, where she finds herself with the time and space to ponder aging, parenthood (she has two adult daughters with their own issues) and her evolving relationship with William. It’s thoughtful, wise and wonderful.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
This is another brilliant, dark novel by the author of 2015’s weighty A Little Life, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Though it received mixed reviews, To Paradise is my personal favorite of 2022, a complex creation featuring three separate stories in different time periods and altered realities, with overlapping characters. The last section is the most searing, likely to stay in your mind for weeks for its vivid portrayal of a near-future — 2093 — pandemic-plagued, warmed-earth dystopian New York City that feels all too real.
Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us by Rachel Aviv
Aviv first caught my attention with her eye-opening, rather frightening 2019 New Yorker story about how difficult it can be to withdraw from psychiatric meds. Her new book critiques the way mental health is treated by our health care system and society more generally, but it's by no means dryly academic: She uses the unique stories of people such as Bapu, an Indian woman who believes she’s a divine vessel, as well as her own (among many challenges, she was hospitalized for an eating disorder at age 6) to illustrate the complexity of the human mind and why it’s so necessary that every individual’s mental health be considered holistically and with compassion.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
Farrell already proved her mastery of the historical fiction genre in last year’s Hamnet, a story about Shakespeare’s family and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (and my favorite book of 2021). Her latest is set in 16th century Italy, where the young duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici is wed to the mercurial ruler of another region for political purposes. It’s soon clear the marriage won’t end well. Like Hamnet, the novel is richly detailed and transporting.
The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man by Paul Newman
Never a particularly ardent fan of the late acting legend (and salad dressing purveyor), I didn’t expect to be so absorbed in this posthumous memoir/biography, which was cowritten with David Rosenthal. Based in large part on Newman’s own writings, it’s stunningly revealing, full of expressions of self-doubt, regret and uncertainty from a man many view as an icon of cool masculinity. The actor’s goal, he wrote, was to “leave some kind of record that sets things straight, pokes holes in the mythology that’s sprung up around me.” (Read our seven takeaways from the book.)
The Lemon by S.E. Boyd
This tart tale, the creation of three writers — journalists Kevin Alexander and Joe Keohane and editor Alessandra Lusardi — is packed with dark humor and hilariously self-centered characters out to make a buck and find their 15 minutes of fame. Their paths cross after celebrity chef John Doe, a troubled Anthony Bourdain-like traveling foodie, dies in a particularly embarrassing way that needs to be covered up to protect his brand. It’s a grim premise, but the story manages to be wryly funny and totally entertaining.
Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
Stuart, author of the Booker Prize–winning Shuggie Bain, sets his latest heartbreaking and poignant novel in depressed 1980s Glasgow, amid deep tensions between Protestant and Catholic residents. Sensitive Mungo, a Protestant teenager mostly unattended by his unstable mother, develops a relationship with the kindly James, who is Catholic — a dangerous situation when Mungo’s hotheaded brother Hamish is a violent gang leader. This is juxtaposed with Mungo’s disastrous, mother-approved fishing trip with a pair of men that adds to the novel’s building tension.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
A thick novel by the author of The Poisonwood Bible (among many great works), this story (inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, hence the title) centers on a young man growing up in Appalachia with a drug-abusing mother. Friends and family pitch in periodically and help Demon, but he’s a tragic character who faces endless challenges, including substandard schools, abuse, addiction and neglect. Kingsolver infuses his heartrending story with a bit of humor, while offering an absorbing deep dive into the lives of people mired in rural poverty.
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
This is a mind-bending, fantastic novel that begins with a tech mogul, Bix Bouton, who develops a new technology called “Own Your Unconscious” that allows users to access any memory from their pasts, as well as share them with others. Egan, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, weaves in a host of intriguing characters (including a few, such as Bix, who appeared in Goon Squad) and jumps to and from different time periods to create a colorful, layered story about, at least in part, the elusiveness of authenticity in a world that feels increasingly virtual.
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry
Yes, we’ve got another National Book Award winner on this list, this one in the nonfiction category, by a professor of African American studies at Princeton, who details her travels through the American Deep South (a region and culture “made at a crossroads between the lust for cotton and the theft of Indigenous land,” she notes). Raised in Alabama, Perry is returning home, in a sense, to look at the South and its history of racial division with fresh eyes and a thoughtful perspective to help understand the nation as a whole.
More 2022 Books of Note
Finding Me by Viola Davis: A best-selling memoir by the actress, who offers a raw, frank look at her life, from growing up in poverty in Rhode Island, to finding success on stage and beyond. The audiobook version, read by Davis, has also received great praise.
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty: Winner of this year’s National Book Award, Gunty’s debut novel is about residents of a low-income housing complex in a down-and-out town in Indiana during a hot week in July. The award judges called it “beautiful, biting, darkly comic, and provocative.”
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O’Toole: O’Toole, a masterful essayist, incorporates stories from his own life, including growing up in working-class Dublin, to explore the larger story of his homeland with sensitivity and insight. It won the 2021 An Post Irish Book Award; judges described it as “an essential book for anyone who wishes to understand modern Ireland.”
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: A charming, funny debut novel, this bestseller is about Elizabeth Zott, a chemist in 1960s California who becomes the host of a cooking show and ends up teaching viewers about far more than how to bake a cake. An Apple TV+ adaptation starring Brie Larson is in the works.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng: By the best-selling novelist of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, Ng’s bestseller focuses on a 12-year-old named Bird who lives with his father in a dystopian America where the dictatorial leadership has eliminated all dissent and banned books deemed unpatriotic.
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson: I loved this absorbing novel about two adult siblings, Byron and Benny, who learn incredible secrets about their mother’s past after she passes away. The book is being adapted into a Hulu series.
Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn: This witty, lighthearted thriller features a kick-butt group of women in their 60s who work as elite assassins. (“We don’t murder on our days off any more than a thoracic surgeon will cut your rib cage open for kicks,” one character notes. “We have standards.”)
The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff: The Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer — for her book about a literary giant’s wife, Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) — probes the life of the American revolutionary, born three centuries ago this year.
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