10 of the Best Depictions of Suburbia in Literature
Ah, the suburbs. Their playgrounds are great to goof around in, their basements are superb places for 16-year-olds to French kiss and drink vodka-Gatorades, and their cul-de-sacs are ideal for child-rearing. For many folks, though, the endless rows of white fences and lawn sprinklers are a total hellscape — a metaphorical prison and an insufferable reminder of their own dwindling individualism. (Or so I’m told; I kinda liked drinking vodka-Gatorades in the rec room.) Either way, the suburbs are a breeding ground for some of the most poignant and unsettling books ever written, and these are 10 of the very best.
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'The Virgin Suicides' by Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides’ tale of the five beautiful, doomed Lisbon sisters succeeds on its ’70s suburban setting. Narrated by a Greek-chorus of boys that grew up with them, the girls’ story is small town mythology. The Lisbon family’s rapid decline is a suburban failure, and Eugenides’ remarkably average neighborhood provides the perfect setting to witness life unfold as it shouldn’t.
'The Namesake' by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri’s Indian-American Gogol is faced with an identity crisis as he grows up outside of Boston. His desire to assimilate (and his immigrant parents’ disappointment in him doing so) might have been less had he grown up in a city, where fitting in isn’t as important. Gogol’s mother, too, struggles with the isolation of the suburbs. Lahiri’s details are spot on, and her description of suburban dinner parties — kids watching TV, parents in the living room — is great nostalgia fodder.
'Little Children' by Tom Perotta
Suburban malaise is Tom Perotta’s thing — see: Election, The Abstinence Teacher — but Little Children is his best depiction of white picket ennui. Here, there’s an affair carried out at the town pool, a vigilante neighborhood watch group, and a dangerous new neighbor. The community’s disturbing secrets make for good entertainment, and the book’s suburb acts as a graveyard for unfulfilled dreams.
'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Sebold
'Revolutionary Road' by Richard Yates
Considered to be the malaise-iest of suburban malaise stories, Richard Yates’ characters give their dreams up for a quiet suburban existence; they attempt to escape it, but their inability to do so quite literally destroys them. Written in 1961, it’s a fascinating look into a time so many people falsely equate with suburban tranquility.
'Empire Falls' by Richard Russo
'The Ice Storm' by Rick Moody
Upper class Connecticut has never seemed more exciting or depressing than it does in Rick Moody’s dark masterpiece. Set in tony New Canaan, Conn. during the Watergate scandal, all the parents and kids are hooking up, drinking, and mourning their and the country’s collective loss of innocence.
'The Corrections' by Jonathan Franzen
Ever wonder what is going on in that one house on your block, the one with the elderly empty nesters? Jonathan Franzen knows, and it’s not pretty. You’ll lose yourself in the Lambert family’s life, as the three grown children and their aging parents come to terms with a half-century of turmoil.
'Ordinary People' by Judith Guest
Another posh town, another family divided by tragedy. After their oldest son dies, Beth and Calvin Jarrett can barely stand one another, and their other son tries to end his own life. Ordinary People is a beautiful portrait of a family in crisis. The concern that they — especially Beth, in particular — have over what others think of them is devastating and speaks to the keeping up with the Joneses attitude of so many suburbanites.
'Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir' by D.J. Waldie
With its sparse prose and almost scientific analysis of the suburban experience, D.J. Waldie’s memoir is surprisingly poetic and affecting. Each house is like an island, he says, and “Your parents arrive like pilgrims.” Mixing the history of his Southern California housing development with his own family history, Waldie’s work is a unique look into who and what comprises the suburban experience.