10 Literary Books That Examine the Human Condition 

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” —Ray Bradbury

literary books

If you’re looking for deeply engrossing, character-driven works, you have come to the right place. Unlike genre fiction, literary books tend not to follow predictable plot structures. Instead, the point of the story is to explore the characters.

Every novel on this list will have you contemplating human nature as you root for the heroes and curse the villains—though some may have you questioning whether you truly know the difference between the two. 


The Latecomer

By Jean Hanff Korelitz

Fans of The Plot will know how consuming and mesmerizing Jean Hanff Korelitz’s writing can be. The Latecomer is no different. The three Oppenheimer children, Harrison, Lewyn, and Sally were all born to their parents through IVF. As they all grow and move on with their lives, their mother, Johanna, begins to feel a void. 

Johanna sees the fractured, contentious relationship between her children, and she finds herself yearning for another chance—and another child. Using a single remaining embryo from the previous IVF treatments, Johanna is able to conceive a fourth child, leading to a 17-year age gap between the triplets and the newest Oppenheimer child. 

While having a child should be a joyful experience, little Phoebe Oppenheimer’s arrival seems to alienate the family further. The triplets are so consumed with their own lives that this “latecomer” only heightens the ire that they feel. Meanwhile Johanna’s husband, Salo, never had an affinity for children in the first place and seems to bear no interest in the newest child. 


Our Wives Under the Sea

By Julia Armfield

Hauntingly poetic and atmospheric, Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea follows a marine biologist whose latest assignment ended with devastating consequences. The submarine that Leah had been traveling in malfunctioned, sending the crew plunging to the bottom of the ocean, and trapped there. 

Finally returned to the land, Leah’s wife, Miri, sees that whatever happened on that craft has changed her wife as she once knew her. Leah seems almost catatonic while at home, constantly turning on taps and filling the apartment with the sound of running water. She’s often retreated into her own head, and she’s lost her appetite. Miri begins to seek out answers to Leah’s vacillating moods, trying to uncover what may have happened to her wife under the sea. 


My Last Innocent Year

By Daisy Alpert Florin

Fans of The Secret History, If We Were Villains, Dark Horses, The Ingenue, or My Dark Vanessa will be drawn into this winding academic novel. My Last Innocent Year tells the story of Isabel Rosen, a young woman on the verge of graduating from college. Having always felt like an outsider from the upper-class, elitist student body, Isabel has spent her last few college years keeping her head down. But when she experiences a non-consensual sexual encounter, her existence at college is tipped on its axis. 

Isabel begins an affair with R.H. Connelly, her married writing professor. Connelly gives Isabel the attention that she yearns for. Isabel begins to grow into her adulthood, pitching her into a tumultuous final semester of college. 


The Collected Regrets of Clover

By Mikki Brammer

Having had many experiences with death as a child, Clover Brooks has rarely felt particularly close to the land of the living. When she grows up, she chooses to become a death doula—a career that allows her to provide emotional and physical support to someone at the end of their life. She ensures that her clients’ lives end not only comfortably, but peacefully. When Clover is unable to give her grandfather the same comfort that she’s been able to give her clients, she’s deeply affected. 

Clover takes on a new client, and she finds herself undertaking an unexpected quest from a woman nearing the end of her life. Claudia is 91, and determined to clear one of her final regrets before she passes away. 


Please Report Your Bug Here

By Josh Riedel

How many times have you seen something that made you wonder if there was a glitch in the matrix? Sometimes, something happens that we can’t logically explain. When Ethan is blipped out of his office, into a field of grass, and then back into his office, he’s certain that he’s experiencing such a phenomenon. 

Ethan works for a popular dating app in Silicon Valley. The job isn’t all it first seemed cracked up to be, and Ethan spends long, mind-numbing hours reviewing flagged content. But when his reality glitches, Ethan begins to dig into the DateDate app’s technology. He discovers that the app doesn’t only help singles find their next relationship—it allows him to move between dimensions. 


Some Came Running

By James Jones

When Dave Hirsh returns to his small hometown in Illinois after the Second World War, he struggles to readjust to civilian life. Dave's return sparks various reactions among the townspeople, and he upends several of their lives, including that of his estranged brother, and a schoolteacher named Ginny.

Partial Eclipse

Partial Eclipse

By Lesley Glaister

Centered around a young woman stuck in solitary confinement, Glaister’s novel will keep you guessing as to just how reliable her narrator really is. Jenny is a criminal who comes from a family with a history of criminality. Her distant ancestor, Peggy, once stole peacock feathers for her infant son and was greatly punished for the crime. 

As a result, Peggy is shipped off to Botany Bay, Australia. The conditions are desperate and sparse, and Peggy struggles to survive. Similarly, Jenny considers how her own crimes have brought her to her solitary imprisonment. 

Queen for a Day

Queen for a Day

By Maxine Rosaler

Set in the 1970s, Rosaler’s novel explores the stigmas and difficulties faced by autistic children and their parents in a time when there was far less medical and societal understanding around autism. 

Queen for a Day tells the story of Mimi Slavitt and her autistic son, Elliot. As Mimi navigates the complexities of raising Elliot, she grapples with her own aspirations, relationships, and the constant quest for societal acceptance.


The Limits of the World

By Jennifer Acker

Urmila and Premchand Chandaria are struggling with the fact that their children, Sunil and Naina, may not fulfill the expectations that they have for them. When a dark family secret is unearthed, it causes the family to return to their ancestral home in Nairobi. Once there, Sunil unleashes a shocking secret of his own, further altering the family’s dynamic.



By Sayaka Murata

Young cousins Natsuki and Yuu both feel that they are aliens living among their families—outsiders that have no place in their society and families. They’re separated while still young, but as they grow older, they find one another again. Natsuki and her husband reconnect with Yuu, and they agree to all live together. 

Their unusual arrangement immerses them into a way of living that blurs the lines between humans, and their own alien way of living. 

Featured photo: Iñaki del Olmo / Unsplash