10 Literary Fiction Books That Are Pure Joy to Read

Don't be put off by the term "literary fiction."

literary fiction books

For some reason, whenever we ask our friends or Facebook followers what kind of books they like to read, almost no one responds with literary fiction. This is somewhat surprising, as many bestsellers and popular books fit into that category. Perhaps this is because unlike genre fiction, such as romance or thrillers, literary fiction books often lack a common thread with one another. Or, maybe it's because people think literary fiction sounds pretentious—or they simply aren't sure what the term means.

Literary fiction is a bit of a nebulous category, though it generally refers to any book that has "literary merit"—think the Great American Novel, or Pulitzer Prize winners. Compared to genre fiction, which often follows a familiar plot structure and is written to entertain, literary fiction tends to be more character-driven, explores the human condition, and often pushes boundaries or plays with structure. 

Whether you're already a lover of literary fiction or are looking to try something new, there's something for everyone in the following list.

This list of recommendations fulfills one of our 2021 Summer Reading Challenge prompts. Sign up to participate in the challenge now! 

purple hibiscus literary fiction

Purple Hibiscus

By Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie is famous for her novel Americanah, but if you haven’t read her debut novel, you’re missing out. The story follows 15-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja, who have led a privileged, sheltered life in Nigeria. 

Despite their tyrannical father, they’re ignorant of the issues in the rest of the world, or even their country—until a military coup makes it too dangerous for them to stay at home, and they’re sent to live with their aunt. There, Kambili and Jaja are exposed to a different way of living. And when they return home, they realize they can’t return to their previous life.

creatures literary fiction


By Crissy Van Meter

“[A] kaleidoscopic narrative . . . Tenacious, wildly original, and full of insight.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Evangeline’s wedding on Winter Island is not going as planned—the groom may be lost at sea, her mother has unexpectedly showed up, and a dead whale is stuck in the harbor. From there the dreamy narrative begins to slip back in time, as Evie remembers her childhood with her charming but neglectful father and her untethered best friend.

the temple house vanishing literary fiction

The Temple House Vanishing

By Rachel Donohue

Louisa is the new, brilliant scholarship student at Temple House School, a Catholic boarding school in Ireland where nothing is as it seems. Louisa forms two close relationships at Temple House—one with Victoria, who the other girls don’t get along with, and one with their charismatic art teacher, Mr. Lavelle. 

One day, Mr. Lavelle and Louisa both disappear, creating a mystery that captivates the rest of the country. Twenty-five years later, one journalist who grew up on the same street as Louisa decides to look into the case. She finds fascinating stories—but will she find Louisa and Mr. Lavelle?

everywhere you don't belong literary fiction

Everywhere You Don't Belong

By Gabriel Bump

Claude is an average kid who is dealing with a lot—violence, failed love, and abandonment mark his adolescence, and all he truly wants is to find his place. 

A young black man from the South Side of Chicago, Claude was raised by his civil rights-era mother who wants him to follow in her footsteps. But when riots break out in their neighborhood, Claude doesn’t want to let his race define his life. He tries to start over somewhere else—but there isn’t anywhere in America where he’s truly safe.

big girl small town literary fiction

Big Girl, Small Town

By Michelle Gallen

A finalist for the Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year, this story follows Majella, an introvert who grew up in Northern Ireland after the Troubles. She spends her days going to work, caring for her alcoholic mother, and eating the same reheated fish and chips for dinner every night. But when her granny dies, breaking the monotony of her days, Majella realizes there just might be more to the world than what she’s seen so far.

the mountains sing literary fiction

The Mountains Sing

By Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Those who enjoy multigenerational sagas are sure to fall in love with The Mountains Sing, which follows the Trần family throughout the Việt Nam War.

Born in 1920, Trần Diệu Lan now has six children and is forced to escape with them when the Communist government rose in the North. Now her young granddaughter, Hương, is growing up as her parents and uncles are traveling along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in yet another conflict that will tear apart their country and their family.

afterlife, literary fiction


By Julia Alvarez

How far would you go to help another person—especially when your own life is in tatters? Antonia Vega is a recently retired immigrant who has just been dealt an unexpected blow: the sudden death of her husband, Sam. Then, in quick succession, her sister disappears and a pregnant, undocumented teen arrives on Antonia’s doorstep. 

Suddenly being asked to give more of herself than she’s sure she’s able, this story “poses questions about American immigration and mental-health policies, and it is a moving exploration of the ways we inadvertently fail the people we love."—The New Yorker

water for elephants literary fiction

Water for Elephants

By Sara Gruen

Even if you have already seen the wildly successful adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz, this charming novel is well worth reading. Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary student who doesn’t quite have his degree, though he finds work caring for the animals in a traveling circus. 

It’s there he meets Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star, and Rosie, the elephant she’s learning to ride and perform on. But Marlena is married to August, the circus’s owner. He can be charming—though he can also be brutal.

hieroglyphics literary fiction


By Jill McCorkle

This seemingly simple story carefully pulls at the threads of what it means to be a parent, and a family. Lil and Frank married quickly, having connected over losing a parent at a young age. Now, with children of their own, Lil is determined to leave a history for them, and is digging through the artifacts of her family—perhaps finding out more than Frank would want their children to know. 

Hieroglyphics is a novel that tugs at the deepest places of the human soul—a beautiful, heart piercing meditation on life and death and the marks we leave on this world. It is the work of a wonderful writer at her finest and most profound.”—Jessica Shattuck, author of The Women in the Castle

the lives of edie pritchard literary fiction

The Lives of Edie Pritchard

By Larry Watson

Though she’s always worked tirelessly, Edie Pritchard has also struggled to be recognized for more than her looks. From her job at the bank to trying to make two marriages work to raising her daughter, she gave it her all, only to have it always come back to her appearance. Men fought over her. Her second husband became possessive and jealous, and she was resented by her daughter. And now, as a grandmother, a younger man won’t leave her alone. All Edie wants is to be herself—but all the men in her life insist on categorizing her as something else.