As a book lover, one of my all-time favorite ways to close out each year is by recognizing the books I’ve spent all year reading — including (and especially) those amazing debut novels I never saw coming. Each year tons of debut novels make their way into my hands and onto my book shelves — and each year I’m surprised, excited, moved, and challenged by the brand new authors whose words are making their mark on the world. The list of debut women writers of 2017 was no different.
One thing I will say about the debut novels that had readers everywhere buzzing this year was that they definitely didn’t shy away from tough topics: from stories of racism and police violence to tales of immigrant journeys, personal losses, and coming-of-age challenges, the best debut novels of 2017 faced issues both urgent and evergreen, head-on. They challenged readers: opening our minds and our hearts a little bit more with each page. And, of course, the writing was fresh, exciting, and beautiful. Here are 17 of 2017's favorite debut novels written by women — so, check them out! Before you know it, the best debuts of 2018 will be sneaking their way into your TBR stacks. (And no, I cannot wait either.)
'Stay with Me' by Ayobami Adebayo
Shortlisted for the 2017 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me is a touching and emotional debut that takes readers into the marriage and fertility struggles of Nigerian couple Yejide and Akin — whose lives are turned upside-down when Akin’s family suddenly arrives with a second wife for him, introduced to bear Akin an heir and challenging Yejide's strength and their relationship.
'Lilli de Jong' by Janet Benton
Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton is a striking historical and feminist debut that highlights the power of motherhood and honors the silent strength of women — introducing readers to Lilli de Jong, a young woman abandoned by her lover, who gives birth in an institution for unwed mothers and makes the impossible choice to risk social and financial ruin in order to keep her infant daughter, fighting for her independence and economic rights as a woman well ahead of her time.
'Things That Happened Before the Earthquake' by Chiara Barzini
Introducing a family of Italian immigrants to 90s-riot-era Los Angeles, Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini is a YA debut that tells the coming-of-age story of Eugenia — a teen who is fumbling her way through party drugs and meaningless sex while idolizing her home country, and who cycles her way through a cast of bizarre and unforgettable characters on her way to finding herself.
'Harmless Like You' by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Moving fluidly through time and place, Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan introduces readers to Yuki Oyama: a Japanese girl struggling to find her way as an artist, and her present-day adult son, Jay: who was abandoned by Yuki when he was just 2-years-old. Haunting and wise, this novel dives deep into the complexities of art, identity, and family.
'When Dimple Met Rishi' by Sandhya Menon
A 2017 Bustle Book Club favorite, Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi is an endearing and big-hearted YA novel about two teens: Dimple Shah and Rishi Patel — a nontraditional Indian-American daughter and a kind-hearted romantic, respectively — who meet at a summer camp program for aspiring web developers and who, unbeknownst to Dimple, have been slated for an arranged marriage by their parents.
'Salt Houses' by Hala Alyan
Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses tells the story of one Palestinian family whose lives are uprooted by the political violence that surrounds them — first forced to leave their homes and countries during the Six-Day War of 1967 and decades later forced to flee again when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. Ever-timely, this debut illuminates the heartache and permanent unsettledness experienced by refugees all over the world, reminding readers of the burdens and the blessings of home.
'What We Lose' by Zinzi Clemmons
Another Bustle Book Club fave from this year, What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons is a powerful and striking coming-of-age story that introduces readers to a young African-American woman named Thandi who is learning to navigate her own multi-racial and multi-national identity while grappling with the devastating loss of her mother to cancer, at a time in her life when she needs her the most.
'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas
Tackling the timely subject of police shootings of unarmed black men, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give introduces readers to coming-of-age activist Starr Carter, whose life is changed when she becomes the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend Khalil by a police officer, and finds herself thrown into the national, political spotlight.
'American Street' by Ibi Zoboi
Nominated for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, American Street by Ibi Zoboi is a magically-tinged story about teenage Haitian immigrant Fabiola Toussaint, who is separated from her mother during the immigration process and travels to Detroit to live with her very American cousins — relatives who find her as strange, unfamiliar, and interesting as she finds them.
'Marlena' by Julie Buntin
Urgent and disturbing, Julie Buntin’s Marlena introduces readers to 30-year-old Cat — a functioning alcoholic whose life was altered forever the year she turned 15, when her hard-partying friend Marlena was discovered dead in the woods in winter, haunting Cat with both tragic loss and debilitating guilt.
'Dear Martin' by Nic Stone
Another YA novel that tackles the tensions between young black men and police officers is Dear Martin by Nic Stone. Justyce McAllister is an Ivy-league-bound teen who finds inspiration in the writings and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. — but whose beliefs and strength are about to be tested during a violent altercation with a white, off-duty police officer that throws the teen and his friend into the national spotlight.
'The Leavers' by Lisa Ko
Lisa Ko’s The Leavers takes readers from New York to China, telling the story of an undocumented Chinese mother named Polly, and the son, Deming Guo, who she abandoned suddenly when he was 11-years-old. Renamed Daniel and pressured to transform into the “all-American” son his adoptive parents want, Deming/Daniel learns to navigate cultural boarders and boundaries, as he discovers who he truly wants to be; while his mother, Polly, languishes in the fallout of her mistakes.
'Sycamore' by Bryn Chancellor
Bryn Chancellor’s Sycamore tells the story of Jess Winters, a girl whose disappearance from the small, Arizona town of Sycamore lingers in the hearts and minds of residents 18 years later — and whose disappearance remains a mystery. But when a body is found buried into the wall of a dry desert ravine, the painful history of Jess’s brief time in Sycamore begins to swirl through the small community once again.
'The Salt House' by Lisa Duffy
Introducing readers to a young couple who have lost their youngest daughter, The Salt House by Lisa Duffy is a heartbreaking novel about one family — Hope and Jack Kelley and their two surviving daughters, Jess and Kat — who have lost themselves in their own, separate grief, and who are approaching a crossroads that will either lead to healing or the destruction of their family forever.
'The Education of Margot Sanchez' by Lilliam Rivera
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera is a coming-of-age novel about Margot Sanchez, a teen who has landed herself in teen purgatory (aka: she’s grounded) for taking her father’s credit card on an unauthorized shopping spree. Enlisted to work in her family’s grocery store as punishment, Margot spends a summer slicing deli meat and starting to come into her own as both a daughter and a young woman.
'The Last Days of Café Leila' by Donia Bijan
Inspired by the writer’s return to her country of exile, Iran, The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan tells the story of a woman named Noor, who returns to her father’s café in Tehran in search of answers about her mother’s disappearance during the Islamic Revolution — with her American-raised daughter Lily in tow. But life in Iran isn’t easy for mother nor daughter, who each struggle to navigate a culture that isn’t truly their own.
'The Weight of Him' by Ethel Rohan
Big-hearted, tender, and wholly relatable, Ethel Rohan’s The Weight of Him introduces readers to Billy Brennan, an obese father and food addict who embarks on a public weight-loss campaign in the wake of his teenage son Michael's suicide. Struggling with compulsive eating and weight loss, while navigating the tumultuous waters of suicide and suicide prevention, Billy discovers what it means to be left among the living in the wake of profound loss.