In a time of great collective precarity—both political and economic—long-held literary greats came through with novels that asked the burning questions of this era. Searing debuts pierced the literary establishment, extraordinary novels explored desire and ambition, yearning and loss. They featured protagonists with the intelligence and integrity to examine their former selves alongside their current selves, to ask more of each other and the world they inhabit. They fell in love, and into lust; they were ambitious, and they made mistakes. Most importantly, these novels gave us a mirror back into our past, and a tunnel toward our future, inevitable and damaged though it surely is. The best of this year’s novels reminded us that we must persist, that we are survivors only when we move forward together, and that our greatest gift is our collective humanity.
Here are Electric Lit’s top three novels of the year, followed by additional favorites listed in alphabetical order.
The Top 3 Novels of the Year
Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej
In Little Rabbit, short-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, a queer woman becomes sexually entangled with the choreographer, an older cisgender man. As she navigates the heteronormative-conforming presentation of her new relationship, she grapples with questions about its dynamics: Is she more empowered with the choreographer—or less? Does he have power over her, or simply more power than her? Is a balance of power even what she wants? For discussion of these questions and more, check out this conversation between former EL staffer Preety Sidhu and current EL staffer Alyssa Songsiridej. (Note: Alyssa Songsiridej is the managing editor for Electric Literature.)
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan
The release of Jessamine Chan’s debut garnered her comparisons to contemporary literary titans like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as classic greats like Orwell and Vonnegut—and from major outlets (Vogue) and writers (Diane Cook, Robert Jones, Jr.) no less. The School for Good Mothers follows Frida Liu as she finds herself in a government-run facility for bad mothers, ie, women like Frida who fail to meet the state-defined standards for appropriate parenting. The facility is less school and more, to borrow phrasing from Diane Cook, who interviewed Chan for Electric Lit in January, “dystopian apparatus.” We won’t spoil anything by saying more, but suffice say, Good Mothers is what the reviewers say it is: excellent, provocative, horrifying.
Either/Or by Elif Batuman
Either/Or, Elif Batuman’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Idiot, delivers more of what every Idiot fan wants: more Selin. The story picks up where the first installment left off; Selin is back from her summer abroad, a sophomore at Harvard, and as introspective as ever. Ivan, the subject of Selin’s unrequited infatuation in The Idiot has graduated from college but not from Selin’s thoughts. The novel is less plot and more meander through a fascinating mind—smart but inexperienced, ambitious but insecure, curious but oblivious. If you loved The Idiot, you’ll love Either/Or—and if you’re already hoping for a third installment, EL’s interview with Batuman is perfect reading material while you wait.
Electric Literature’s Other Favorite Novels
All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews
Sarah Thankam Mathews’ debut is a bildungsroman for the present moment. Its protagonist, Sneha, is a 22-year-old college graduate who has managed, miraculously, to land a corporate job in Milwaukee despite the economic recession. Like everyone else, she is desperately in search of that classic castle in the air, The American Dream. She is also brown and queer, both deeply tied to her family in India and deeply interested in forging her own future. She is, in short, complicated—and gloriously so. In an interview with EL, Mathews said she wanted her novel to “advocate for a certain kind of large-hearted, generous, and honest relational style between people.” All This Could Be Different does that—and it does it without shying away from messy topics. Sex and gender, capitalism and labor, immigration and assimilation, love and belonging—it’s all here.
Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
Can something be both a love letter and a take-down? Big Girl is that: a love letter to 90s culture (shout-out to Biggie Smalls and Aaliyah) and a take-down of 90s culture (looking at you, Weight Watchers). In Big Girl, Malaya is a girl swimming against the current of her family’s, and the culture’s, expectations. She’s smart and curious and artistic, but those qualities seem to matter less than the fact that she is also fat. Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s novel is a coming-of-age story with a capacious lens. For readers interested in a sharp look at Black womanhood, 90s Harlem, and the toxicity of body shame, Big Girl is a sure bet.
Briefly, a Delicious Life by Nell Stevens
The conceit of Briefly, a Delicious Life is bold: Blanca is fourteen and desperately in love with George, a married woman. Frédéric Chopin (yes, that Frédéric Chopin) is her husband. Oh, and, Blanca is dead. In lesser hands, this triangle might be rendered absurd, but in Stevens’ assured prose, it’s captivating. Blanca is a charming if bizarre protagonist, and the gender politics of the 1800s are, even from a ghost’s perspective, ghastly. If historical fiction (with an emphasis on the fiction) is your genre, Nell Stevens’ debut novel is the ghost story/queer romance for you.
Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades
You may believe you’ve already read all of the choral novels you need to read. You did The Virgin Suicides in the 90s, We the Animals ten years later. You may think there are only so many times the collective “we” can be used before it becomes less of a perspective and more of a gimmick. But whatever misguided thoughts or beliefs you may be harboring, Brown Girls is proof that the first-person plural can still deliver a wallop of emotional punch. Nadira, Gabby, Naz, Trish, and Angelique are young women of color growing up in the dregs of Queens, New York. They are vibrant, beautiful, bursting with life—a collective of diverse stories buttressed and emboldened by the author’s craft decisions. As Palasi Andreades told Electric Lit: “By using the ‘we’ point-of-view, I definitely wanted to capture the sisterhood, solidarity, and diversity of Queens. . . . there’s a hybridity to the text that reflects the hybrid identities of these characters.”
Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet
The protagonist of Lydia Millet’s latest novel is a fan-favorite in today’s climate: a white cis male living off a family fortune made in Big Oil. (I’m kidding.) The setting is also the stuff blockbuster hits are made of: a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Phoenix. (Is this joke getting old yet?) But in Millet’s hands, Gil (the aforementioned white guy) is also something that it is very difficult to be—let alone write—without cynicism: he’s nice. And however domestic the setting, Millet is, as ever, committed to asking the Big Questions. Is it possible to do good in a world hell-bent toward bad? Is it even worth trying? Dinosaurs is the kind of novel that leaves the reader in a reflective (dare we say, hopeful?) mood. And during those fifteen minutes of afterglow, before you check your phone, dip into this interview with Lydia Millet—the world will still be teetering on the brink of catastrophe when you’re done.
Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou
The best writers defy easy categorization. Was Jane Austen a domestic author or a scathing political satirist? (I’m a Jane Austen fan, the correct answer is: both.) Elaine Hsieh Chou is like that. Disorientation, her debut novel, isn’t one thing. Instead, to borrow words from the EL interviewer who chatted with Chou earlier this year: it’s a whirlwind romp that combines academic satire with a who-dunnit mystery thriller. Honestly, that’s probably all you need to know—but I’ll also add that the protagonist is a disillusioned doctoral student mired in her dissertation and struggling with her sense of identity, until an unexpected discovery forces her into forward motion. If you’ve ever been stuck in academic hell or had a moment within which you questioned everything, this book is for you. Which is really only another way of saying this book is for everyone.
Foster by Claire Keegan
Named one of the top 50 novels published in the twenty-first century by The Times, Foster is a novella I recommend to anyone who hears “Irish writer” and thinks only “Sally Rooney.” Claire Keegan is decidedly not Sally Rooney; what she is, instead, is timeless. Much as Rooney nails the contemporary, Keegan revitalizes the classic. Her prose is spare, her tone attentive, her atmosphere quiet. The protagonist of Foster is a little girl who is left with distant relatives by her impoverished parents. As she steps into the life of a new family, readers glimpse the world, in all its beauty and failings, through her earnest eyes.
Greenland by David Santos Donaldson
Greenland is the story of Kip Starling, a writer writing about a man (Mohammed el Adl, the young Egyptian lover of British author E. M. Forster) who lived a hundred years ago but who nonetheless resembles Kip greatly. They’re both Black, both romantically attached to white partners, both queer, both educated, both othered by the dominant culture. As Kip immerses himself in Mohammed’s story, the borders between them begin to blur, bringing Kip to new understandings about himself and the world. For more books like Greenland, check out Santos Donaldson’s reading list of novels about being a queer immigrant here.
If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga
Written in vivid imagery and breathtaking prose, Noor Naga’s If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, winner of the 2022 Center For Fiction First Novel Prize, begins at the meeting point for two people who change each other’s lives forever. This is a novel that asks big questions—of itself and its readers—ranging from the personal to the political to the philosophical, but it asks them while having fun, too. Check out EL’s conversation between Naga and Doma Mahmoud as a preview of this extraordinary novel.
Less Is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer
In Less is Lost, Andrew Sean Greer’s highly-anticipated follow up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Less, Greer spins a wandering tale of a writer whose problems propel him through a string of nationwide literary gigs. Greer probes what it means to be an American, to be in love, and to earn the moniker of “bad gay.” The spirit of adventure, and of finding one’s way back to who one really is, permeates every page of this book.
Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
Lucy by the Sea is Strout’s third installment in the trilogy that centers one of her most beloved characters, the writer Lucy Barton. In the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, Lucy’s ex-husband brings her to a small town on the coast of Maine. For the next several months, Lucy, William, and their intricate past braid themselves more tightly together than ever, even as the world seems, almost daily, to irrevocably evolve into something else.
Nobody’s Magic by Destiny O. Birdsong
Birdsong’s captivating debut novel, written in three parts, follows three Black women coping with albinism in Shreveport, Louisiana. Suzette finds independence in her budding romance; Maple continues to mourn her mother’s murder; and Agnes is on the verge of discovering the magic within, propelling her to face her destiny. Part grief meditation, part self-affirming discovery, Nobody’s Magic balances yearning and loss with searing hope for the future. Read Darise JeanBaptiste’s essay on the role of threes and Black friendship in Nobody’s Magic and Insecure.
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez
On the outside, the life of Olga Dies Dreaming‘s titular character seems perfect. Set against the backdrop of a bustling New York City, Olga, an in-demand wedding planner, and her brother Pietro are at the center of a romantic, comedic, intelligent novel. Both have picture-perfect public lives (Pietro is a beloved Brooklyn Congressman), yet both harbor greater challenges behind closed doors. When Olga and Pietro are forced to confront a mother who returns to their lives after her abandonment of them for a militant political cause, they are forced to reckon with the far-reaching impact of long-held family secrets.
Post-Traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson
Chantal V. Johnson’s electrifying debut, Post-Traumatic, follows Vivian, a lawyer who advocates for mentally ill patients in New York City. While successful, Vivian contends daily with the aftereffects of a troublingly violent childhood, all while living with the everyday stresses of being a Black Latinx woman in America. When a family reunion prompts Vivian to make a bold move, she begins to unravel.
Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman
Rehamn’s latest novel follows Razia, a young Pakistani Muslim girl growing up in 1980s Queens, New York. Razia’s proximity to a world that is so much bigger than her triggers a desire to experience everything—the spiritual traditions of her religion, the city she lives in, and further exploration of her obsession with pop music. Her growth engenders questions about her faith, her family, and the expectations placed upon the girl in her various and intersecting communities. As Razia grows, and deviates from the prescribed path, readers of Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion won’t be able to help but wonder what will become of her.
Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Towada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani
Towada’s first in a trilogy of novels, Scattered All Over The Earth finds Hiruko teaching immigrant children in near-future Denmark, Japan having vanished from the earth amid a climate disaster and a refugee crisis. In search of someone who speaks her mother tongue, Hiruko travels across Europe, each destination yielding a cast of characters more vivid than the last. A sweeping masterwork, Scattered All Over The Earth will astonish and entertain every reader in its path.
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
Spectacularly imaginative and thought-provoking, The Candy House follows a number of characters (several previously seen in the fantastic A Visit From the Goon Squad) as they grapple with tech-tycoon Bix Bouton’s revolutionary technology “Own Your Unconscious.” The shiny new tech allows users to upload and share their memories, creating a sort of cloud-based collective memory that, inevitably, leads to questions and conflict surrounding ethics, privacy, and power. Egan’s writing is experimental, unnerving, and deeply captivating. If you are a fan of Black Mirror or other art that engages with the many dystopian possibilities of social media, The Candy House is right up your alley.
The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Valera
One of our most anticipated LGBTQ+ books of 2022, Alejandro Valera’s debut novel is a modern coming-of-age story that follows Andrés, a gay professor who returns to his parents in his suburban hometown following the betrayal of husband’s infidelity. Back home, he attends a high school reunion, which thrusts him into weeks of reconnecting with people from his past. A finalist for the 2022 National Book Award, The Town of Babylon is a beautiful story about love, family, class, and the difficult endeavor of reckoning with the past.
Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch
Yuknavitch’s latest novel follows Laisvė, a motherless girl who has the powers of a carrier, a person who can travel through time by harnessing the power of meaningful objects. Composed of intricately braided storylines, Thrust is a magical and daring story exploring the surveillance state, climate change, agency, and the power of storytelling. Learn more about this epic novel by reading EL’s interview with Yuknavitch, in which she discusses, among many smart things, the boringness of linearity.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Spanning three decades, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow tells the tender yet tumultuous story of Sam Masur and Sadie Green, childhood friends turned successful video game designers and artistic collaborators after the release of their first game, Ichigo. With a vibrant cast of characters and niche insight into the world of game creation, Zevin’s ambitious novel explores the power of love and friendship in the face of loss, disability, failure, and self-doubt. This novel is so easy to love and perfect for readers who are looking for a little kindness in their lives.
True Biz by Sarah Nović
In American Sign Language, “true biz” means really, seriously, definitely, real-talk. True biz, True Biz is a must read. Set at the River Valley School for the Deaf, Nović’s novel follows the characters Charlie, Austin, and February as they face a series of crises both personal and political. Charlie is a transfer student who has never met another deaf person. Austin is a golden boy whose life becomes complicated when his baby sister is born with the ability to hear. February is the school’s hearing headmistress and the child of deaf adults (CODA). Learn more about this beautiful and kaleidoscopic novel by reading the interview between Sarah Nović and Ross Showalter, published in EL.
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas
Aside from being a contender for one of the best book covers of 2022, Julia May Jonas’ Vladimir is a razor-sharp and provocative campus novel about obsession, scandal, and power. The narrator is a beloved English professor whose husband, who teaches at the same small liberal arts college as her, is under investigation for inappropriate relationships with former students. Yikes. At the same time, Vladimir, a young and celebrated novelist arrives on campus, and the narrator falls into some questionable behavior of her own. Bold, edgy, and modern, this novel is a page turner that will lead readers through the gray areas of desire and morality.