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New York’s Best Novels

Caitlin Macy is the author of The Fundamentals of Play and Spoiled. Her work has appeared in The New Yorkers, the New York Times Magazine, and Slate, among other publications. The recipient of an O. Henry Award, she lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Her latest novel Mrs. is darkly funny, whip-smart, and timely. 

There are some intriguing themes like motherhood, marriage, work, greed, class, sexual violence and abuse of power and position. But above all, if you lap up Manhattan society settings, skilfully drawn, life-like characters and love listening into another couple’s conversation in a restaurant, or enjoy places like airports for people watching, you’ll adore Mrs.

Words || Caitlin Macy

New York is like a fish farm for writers. We all circle around the same waters hoping to stay alive and find enough to eat. For me the test of a work of art is whether you continue to think of it. I made up this list on the spot; afterward, I went and checked other “New York Novels” lists. In some cases there was overlap; in others, not. Some books, such as The Bell Jar, which I love, I was surprised to find included. Probably because I’m originally from Massachusetts, I think of that as a Mass. novel not a New York one. (Sylvia Plath’s narrator returns to Massachusetts after having a breakdown.) I’m mentioning this because it illustrates what a highly idiosyncratic list this is. With no attempt to represent different eras, it is concentrated in the middle years of the last century. I wasn’t going to mention Gatsby because it’s set on Long Island, but then I simply had to. And once I started cheating, I kept right on, and included story collections.

Butterfield 8, John O’Hara

The title comes from the old telephone exchanges, in which the first two letters indicated the phone number’s address, eg PEnnsylvania 6-5000 for Penn Station. O’Hara made up the BUtterfield exchange to indicate the east side below midtown—the address where a kept woman might have lived. His 1930’s Manhattan glitters with a brutal allure and has one of the best opening scenes ever written—about a morning after. I took my epigraph from it

Sophie’s Choice, William Styron

Often left out of round-ups of New York novels because the Brooklyn setting is overshadowed by the flashbacks to the war, Styron’s novel opens with a hilariously apt account of an entry-level job in publishing which anyone who has been an editorial assistant will recognize. I started out in the city making $16,500 a year and was glad to see that my job could become the stuff of novels. “In those days,” Stingo tells us “cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manh

attan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.” Now we’d say, good luck with that!

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

Obvious but unimpeachable: before “Seinfeld,” Wolfe’s novel gave rise to a host of household terms—Social X-Ray, Master of the Universe. Bonfire is all the more fascinating now because it was written in a pre-Clintonian era, i.e., before the rise of the American meritocracy. I reread it recently and roared with laughter when preppie Sherman McCoy’s preppier neighbor snobs him out in the elevator for failing to wear a suit and tie when not at work. As if!

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

I choose this over The Age of Innocence because as a girl trying to make it in the city without marrying the most boring man in New York, Lily Bart is point A on a map that leads to Holly Golightly and even Carrie Bradshaw. For all her wit and charm, Lily, who is reduced to working trimming hats for a milliner (the turn of the century equivalent of temping) cannot escape the imprisoning roles and expectations of the times; her life is their collateral damage. See also the somewhat schematic but nevertheless underrated The Custom of the Country.

A Time to Be Born, Dawn Powell

Set just before America’s entry into the Second World War, Powell’s novel is the ur-New York brilliantly catty beach read. This Hick-Comes-to-the-Big-City tale has got everything you want and then some: hard-core social climbing, sexual faithlessness, digressions on American power abroad–and is a roman a clef about Clare Booth Luce (second wife of Henry Luce, founder of the Time/Life empire) to boot. Powell doesn’t seem to be read as much as she was and that’s a shame.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Cheating technically because they all live in the suburbs. You could call it the best bridge-and-tunnel novel ever written. It’s funny what sticks with you after rereading something a dozen times over a period of thirty years. For some reason I think most often of the line about Daisy, that she thought “it would steady her to drive.” I have a friend who offers people a tour of his house by quoting Tom Buchanan–“I’ve got a nice place here”– to see if anyone will notice. So far no one has.

The Stories of John Cheever

If I can cheat with Gatsby I can cheat with stories. While many of these take place in a suburb Cheever called “Shady Hill,” his New York stories—Clancy in the Tower of Babel; The Pot of Gold; Torch Song—illuminate with a merry, unobtrusive but then flooring irony the city and its inhabitants of every stratum, from the doorman-building superintendent to the old-money widow. Like a 1960’s Ricky Gervais, Cheever is particularly good on the plight of the white-collar worker. When people ask me whether getting an MFA at Columbia was worth it, I always say, “Yes, because I stole the book of Cheever’s stories out of the department office.”

Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney

This was the book that my generation devoured on the bus that took us from the sticks to the Port Authority where we would disembark for friends’ grandmothers’ apartments and—we hoped–hijinks. Its addictive, second-person narration “You ruined a decade’s worth of creative-writing students who couldn’t stop imitating it.” The nothing-to-lose fearlessness of a debut combined with the adrenalin of youth to make this one hot very quick read.

Slaves of New York, Tama Janowitz

This was the book that made me feel I’d become an adult. Janowitz’s voice was and remains shockingly fresh. The pleasure is that she leaves the edges jagged instead of smoothing them out. Her collection of stories is so evocative of a certain time in the city (the 1980s) that they now hold the fascination of historical fiction as well. Buy it for a sophisticated high school student; she’ll thank you later.

The Fundamentals of Play by Caitlin Macy

Despite its many flaws, I can’t totally disown my first novel. It got a few things right about coming to the city at the twilight of the Preppie Handbook and the dawn of the Internet Age. Rereading it eighteen years after publication, I wanted to tell the writer to relax—it would be okay.


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