The 30 Best Fiction Books Of 2018
It's been a tough year. But despite all the bad news, people created some truly phenomenal art in the last year, and the 30 best fiction books of the year prove that to be true.
This past year, The Song of Achilles author Madeline Miller released her first novel in seven years, Circe, a feminist retelling of countless Greek myths through the eyes of the first witch in literature. It was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. Plus, The Friend by Sigrid Nunez — a tale of grief, love, and memory — won the National Book Award for Fiction, beating out several other titles on this list: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Florida by Lauren Groff, and Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Not to mention, fan-favorite authors Megan Abbott, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Melissa Broder released novels about internal worlds and external pressures. And let's not forget that Lisa Halliday and R.O. Kwon dropped two stunning debut novels — Asymmetry and The Incendiaries, respectively — to widespread buzz and acclaim.
This past year — despite all the bad that happened — many women and gender non-binary writers created good art. Here are the 30 best fiction books of the year:
'Circe' by Madeline Miller
Circe, the first witch in modern literature, finally gets her own story in Madeline's Miller epic new novel. The daughter of Helios, Circe has always been strange — and powerful. When she uses her powers to directly defy the gods, she's sent to live on an island by herself, and it's there that she encounters some of the most famous figures of Greek mythology.
"Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not."
'An American Marriage' by Tayari Jones
Roy and Celestial haven't been married long when Roy is sent to a prison after being wrongly convicted of rape. After five years, he returns to Atlanta to resume his life with his beloved wife — only to find that she's now in love with her long-time best friend, Andre.
"'It's not about fault,' I said. But of course there was that nagging voice, insisting that being with Celestial was a crime like identity theft or tomb raiding. Go get your woman, it scolded me in Roy's voice. Other times it was like my father reminding me that 'all you have is your good name,' which should have been a joke coming from him. But alongside all the clutter in my head was my grandmother's advice: 'What's for you is for you. Extend your hand and claim your blessing.'"
'Asymmetry' by Lisa Halliday
One of 2018's buzziest debuts, Asymmetry is divided into three acts: the first follows Alice, a 25-year-old editorial assistant who strikes up a relationship with a famous and much-older author, modeled after the late Philip Roth; the second follows Amar, an Iraqi-American who is detained in Heathrow airport on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan; the third ties the two stories together in a magnificent, unexpected way.
"Some of us wage wars. Others write books. The most delusional ones write books. We have very little choice other than to spend our waking hours trying to sort out and make sense of the perennial pandemonium. To forge patterns and proportions where they don’t actually exist. And it is this same urge, this mania to tame and possess — this necessary folly—that sparks and sustains love."
'Freshwater' by Akwaeke Emezi
An illuminating and surreal exploration of the self, Freshwater circles on Ada, who is born with one foot on the "other side." As a result, a number of demons live inside her body — and sometimes, they are there to help her, but other times, they are not.
"The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside — maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it."
'Washington Black' by Esi Edugyan
When a young slave is taken under the wing of a white men, they form a tight bond that takes them away from the island of Barbados (via hot-air balloon) and to a new world. Washington Black is a compelling ode to friendship, an exacting dissection of the white savior narrative, and a really fun adventure novel packed into one.
"Later, back at my boarding house, I dug out my papers and paint, and I sketched for the first time in months. I sat in the fragrant glow of a tallow candle and attempted to capture what I'd seen in the waters. I could not. It had been a burst of incandescence, fleeting, radiant, every punch of light like a note of music."
'Give Me Your Hand' by Megan Abbott
Kit and Diane were inseparable at 17. Their ambition and secrets drew them together — until one secret split them apart forever. Now, years later, the two work alongside each other as research assistant's at a lab that studies severe PMS symptoms. When people start turning up dead, Kit's ambition — and Diane's secrets — threaten to ruin their lives forever.
“My mom always says, you don’t have a self until you have a secret.”
'The Friend' by Sigrid Nunez
In the winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction, a writer adopts the dog of her mentor following his death. Despite the canine on the cover, this is less a "dog book" and more a moving treatise on grief, memory, and the evolving and ephemeral nature of relationships.
"What we miss — what we lose and what we mourn — isn't it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are. To say nothing of what we wanted in life but never got to have."
'The Kiss Quotient' by Helen Hoang
Already being adapted into a movie, Helen Hoang's groundbreaking rom-com follows Stella, a mathematician who has Asperger's syndrome and absolutely no clue how to be in a relationship. In an attempt to figure out the whole romance thing, she hires Michael, an escort, to teach her how to date.
"If you can’t stand being with a woman who’s more successful than you, then leave her alone. She’s better off without you. If you actually love her, then know the value of that love and make it a promise. That is the only thing she needs from you.”"
'Motherhood' by Sheila Heti
In a novel that will touch the heart of many millennial women, Sheila Heti grapples with one of the biggest decisions of adulthood: Should I have children?
"As I was watching, I thought about how unfair it was that she and I had to think about having kids — that we had to sit here talking about it, feeling like if we didn't have children, we would always regret it. It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties — when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience — from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility — a question that didn't seem to preoccupy the drunken men at all."
'Tin Man' by Sarah Winman
Ellis and Michael were just 12-years-old when they met and became each other's closest friends — and eventually, something more. But decades later, Ellis is married to Annie and Michael is gone. In Tin Man, Sarah Winman shares heartbreaking story of what happened in between Ellis's two love stories.
"I felt as if nothing else had previously existed. As if the colors and smells of this new country eradicated memory, as if every day rolled back to Day One, bringing with it the chance to experience it all again. I'd never felt more myself. Or more in tune to what I was and what I was capable of. A moment of authenticity when fate and blueprint collide and everything is not only possible, but within arm's reach. And I fell in love. Madly, intoxicatingly so. I think he may have, too. Just for a moment. But I never really knew."
'The Great Believers' by Rebecca Makkai
A finalist for the National Book Award, Rebecca Makkai's novel about the AIDS crisis seamlessly weaves together two stories: one, about an art gallery director whose friends are dying all around him in the mid-80s; the second, about the younger sister of one of those dead friends, who in the modern day, is desperate to track down her daughter who has escaped into a cult.
“We could just be on earth at the same place and same time as everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple. And it’s not. But listen: You two are on the planet at the same time. You’re in the same place now. That’s a miracle. I just want to say that.”
'Florida' by Lauren Groff
A finalist for the National Book Award, Lauren Groff's stunning book tackles issues of climate change, sexism, family, loneliness all through short stories set in her home state: Florida.
“It's marvelous to know another person's entire literary canon by heart. It's like knowing their secret personal language.”
'My Year Of Rest And Relaxation' by Ottessa Moshfegh
The unnamed narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation should be happy: She has a chic job, a handsome boyfriend, a hefty inheritance, and an apartment on the Upper East Side. But all she wants to do is escape — and so, with the help of an artist, a psychologist, her best friend, and a lot of drugs, she decides to take a break from it all.
"We're mostly empty space. We're mostly nothing. Tra-la-la. And we're all the same nothingness. You and me, just filling the space with nothingness. We could walk through walls if we put our minds to it, people say. What they don't mention is that walking through a wall would most likely kill you. Don't get that."
'The Proposal' by Jasmine Guillory
When Nikole goes to a Dodgers game with her actor boyfriend, she doesn't expect that he will propose in front of the entire crowd of people. It's easy to say "no"; it's less easy to ignore the stadium full of disappointed fans. Enter Carlos, a hot doctor who comes to her rescue and sticks around to see her through the fallout.
“I’ve spent so long being afraid of love, because the last time I was in love, the man I loved only loved one part of me, but not all of me, and I thought love meant having to sacrifice a part of yourself. But then I was with you, and you loved every part of me, even the parts I don’t like. And that scared me more, because I thought there must be some trick and that I couldn’t let myself believe it or I’d fall into the trap. But finally I realized it wasn’t a trap.”
'Heads of the Colored People' by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Nafissa Thompson-Spires's short story collection, a nominee for the National Book Awards, is a revelation. In a series of bitingly funny stories, Thompson-Spires writes of blackness, of class, of identity, and more, and weaves together some damn entertaining tales in the process.
"You would think with his blue contacts and unnaturally blonde hair set against dark chocolate mocha-choco-latte-yaya skin — and yes, there is some judgment in the use of "you" — that Riley would date white or Asian women exclusively, or perhaps that he liked men. But you'd be wrong on all counts, as Riley was straight, and he dated widely among black women, and he was neither in denial, nor on the down-low, nor, like John Mayer, equal opportunity and United Colors of Benetton in life but as separate as the fingers of the hand in sex, nor like Frederick Douglass or many others working on black rights in public and going home to a white wife (and there no judgment against Douglass here, just facts for the sake of descriptive clarity)."
'Those Who Knew' by Idra Novey
Years ago, Lena was involved with a man who is now a powerful senator — a man who she now believes is taking advantage of the young woman introducing him at rallies. When that young woman ends up dead, Lena must revisit her entire history with the man, including the violent encounter that ended their relationship.
"Yet there he was on the bus, in front of her, and she convinced herself he must be an apparition come to find her in the vast inhospitable country where she'd experienced such loneliness she'd begun to feel like a specter as well. When the man rose to exit the bus, she knew she wouldn't be able to live with herself if she didn't follow him and see if he had appeared to reveal some kind of message, to convey that the love of her life was not dead but still breathing in some secret cell in the interior."
'Severance' by Ling Ma
What happens when the apocalypse comes and... you still have to go to work? When a plague wrecks New York City, Candice keeps chugging along at the office — until she meets a group of survivors on their way to a place called "The Facility," where they plan to begin a new society.
"Memories beget memories. Shen fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop."
'The Poppy War' by R.F. Kuang
If you love N.K. Jemisin and J.K. Rowling, might I suggest another two initial author named R.F. Kuang? In The Poppy War, Rin —a poor war orphan — shocks everyone when she aces the necessary tests and enrolls in the most prestigious military school in the Empire. She doesn't fit in at the school — but she has a secret power that could help her save the Empire from a Third Poppy War.
"I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both."
'The Incendiaries' by R.O. Kwon
When he meets her in their first year in college, Will immediately becomes infatuates with sad, glamorous Phoebe. But as Phoebe gets pulled into the mysterious world of John Leal and his cult, Will struggles to reconcile his obsession with her with his separation from the religious fanaticism of his childhood.
"She'd underlined words, filled margins, the penciled notes fading. I asked why she'd stopped; I lost interest in it, she said. I'd examined the glyphs as I might have a coded map, directions to Phoebe's shining, inmost psyche, that visible opacity, which showed itself in allowing me to sight it hiding. Privation is lust; isolation desire. I craved what she withheld. I always wanted to know more about how it felt, being Phoebe."
'Melmoth' by Sarah Perry
Helen, originally from Britain, has found a refuge and safe space for herself in Prague — that is, until her friend, Karel, discovers a mysterious letter that warns of a monster called Melmoth the Witness who travels throughout time and persuades people to join her in solitude forever. Helen thinks it's all made up... until Karel disappears.
"But what you must remember is this: that she is lonely, with an eternal loneliness which will end only when our world ends, and she receives her pardon. So she comes to those at the lowest ebb of life, and those she chooses feel her eyes on them. Then they look up — they see her watching — and she holds out her arms and says: Take my hand! I've been so lonely!"
'How Long 'Til Black Future Month?' by N.K. Jemisin
There is no fantasy writer quite like three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin, and her latest work — a short story collection — proves it. These stories, like all her work, challenge readers to think critically about race, society, and redemption.
"What have I forgotten to mention? Oh, it is the thing that will seem most fantastic to you, friend: the variety! The citizens of Um-Helat are so many and so wildly different in appearance and origin and development. People in this land come from many others, and it shows in sheen of skin and kink of hair and plumpness of lip and hip. If one wanders the streets where the workers and artisans do their work, there are slightly more people with dark skin; if one strolls the corridors of the executive tower, there are few extra done in pale. There is history rather than malice in this, and it is still being actively, intentionally corrected — because the people of Um-Helat are not naive believers in good intentions as the solutions to all ills."
'The Pisces' by Melissa Broder
After breaking up with her longtime boyfriend, Lucy travels to Los Angeles to baby-sit her sister's dog for the summer in their pristine home on Venice Beach. There, Lucy's life takes a mysterious turn when she meets — and falls in love with — a charming merman.
"I don't know that we are ever really okay in life, but there are times when we feel closer to it — when we don't remember what it feels like to suffer. During these times we are moving forward in the voice, forgetting we are going nowhere, so the void feels less daunting."
'The Golden State' by Lydia Kiesling
When a young mother on the edge of a mental collapse escapes with her toddler, Honey, to her grandparents' mobile home in Altavista, she doesn't expect that her relationships with two women — Cindy, an activist for secessionism, and Alice, an elderly woman who has traveled to the desert as she nears the end of her life — will result in a dramatic stand-off.
"Suddenly I have what I think may be my most important epiphany about motherhood which is that your child is not your property and motherhood is not a house you live in but a warren of rooms... some well-trod but magnificent place you’re only allowed to sit in for a minute and snap a photo before you are ushered out and you’ll never remember every indivisible jewel of a room but if you’re lucky you go through another and another and another and another until they finally turn out the lights. I pack our things and consider this while Honey used the cord to pull the telephone off the nightstand onto her toes."
'Crudo' by Olivia Laing
How do you cope with a personal reckoning when everything around you is burning down in flames? In Crudo, Kathy attempts to plan a wedding and adjust to the idea of lifelong commitment — all while fake news, Trump, and climate change attempt threaten to destroy the entire world.
"It was getting hotter and hotter. 31 degrees, 36 degrees, 38 degrees. There were wildfires across Europe. One of them had been started by throwing a cigarette butt out of a car. Kathy stood neck-deep in the pool and thought about nothing. Wants go so deep there is no way of getting them out of the body, she'd written in the final paragraph of the last book."
'Kudos' Rachel Cusk
Kudos, the final book in Rachel Cusk's critically acclaimed Outline trilogy, is as difficult to describe as the first two novels. Through the main character Faye and the conversations she enjoys with the people she encounters, Cusk explores the nature of family, love, art, and more.
"I said it was true that the question of whether to leave or remain was one we usually asked ourselves in private, to the extent that it could almost be said to constitute the innermost core of self-determination. If you were unfamiliar with the political situation in our country, you might think you were witnessing not the machinations of a democracy but the final surrender of personal consciousness into the public domain."
'Spinning Silver' by Naomi Novik
This fantastical retelling of the legend of Rumpelstiltskin follows Miryem, a ruthless and unforgiving debt collector who has the ability to turn silver into gold. When her magical abilities draw the notice of the king of the icy fey creatures who haunt her kingdom, she finds herself on an epic quest to save herself and her people.
"He would only shrug and look at me expectantly again, waiting for high magic: magic that came only when you made some larger version of yourself with words and promises, and then stepped inside and somehow grew to fill it."
'Convenience Store Woman' by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Keiko, 36, has worked at the same convenience store for 18 years. She has never had a boyfriend; she has few friends; she doesn't really understand how to exist in the world in a way that is acceptable to others. But when a bitter young man comes to work in the store, he pushes her away from what is comfortable.
“I wished I was back in the convenience store where I was valued as a working member of staff and things weren’t as complicated as this. Once we donned our uniforms, we were all equals regardless of gender, age, or nationality— all simply store workers.”
'Fruit of the Drunken Tree' by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Chula lives in a gated community in Bogotá, where she and her family are mostly safe from the political conflict sweeping the country. Petrona is not so lucky — until she secures a live-in maid position with Chula's family. The two girls form a tight friendship — one that is constantly threatened by the violence that surrounds them.
"We were refugees when we arrived to the U.S. You must be happy now that you'e safe, people said. They told us to strive for assimilation. The quicker we transformed into one of the many the better. But how could we choose? The U.S. was the land that saved us; Colombia was the land that saw us emerge."
'Where The Crawdads Sing' by Delia Owens
Reese Witherspoon made sure everyone knew about this book in 2018, with good reasons. In this mystery-meets-coming-of-age story, the mysterious, elusive Kya Clark — who has spent much of her life alone on the marsh — becomes the subject of suspicion when a handsome young man, Chase Andrews, shows up dead.
"She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn't her fault she'd been alone. Most of what she knew, she'd learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would."
'Vengeful' by V.E. Schwab
In V.E. Schwab's long-anticipated sequel to Vicious, the two super-villains of the first book — Victor Vale and Eli Ever — are leveraged against each other at the whim of a new villain, Marcella Riggins, who wants to bring the city under her total control.
“Some people were matches, a bit of light and no heat. And some were furnaces, all heat but little light. And then, once in a blue moon, there was a bonfire, something so hot and bright you couldn't stand too near without burning.”