20 of the best modern novels of the 21st century

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best modern novels of the 21st century

I’ve been thinking a lot about classic books lately. I recently shared my list of the best classic books everyone should read, but as I put this together, I kept asking myself one question…

What about the best novels of the 21st century?

I’ve been chipping away at this list for a few weeks now, including the best contemporary novels from the last twenty years that I think everyone should read.

These are the modern books I think will become classics (if they aren’t already), including Pulitzer Prize-winners, one-of-a-kind graphic novels, and wonderfully immersive multi-generational novels.

Add these to your reading list, turn it into a modern classic books bucket list, or just pick one to escape into next. Enjoy!

The best novels of the 21st century that are becoming modern classics

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)

The Overstory is a Pulitzer Prize winner and, at least in my eyes, one of the best novels of the 21st century so far. It’s a paean to the vast, interconnected, and magnificently intricate world that we depend on in so many ways: the world of trees.

In this stunning and ambitious novel, Richard Powers weaves together interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. 

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)

Not only do I think Cutting for Stone is one of the best modern classic novels, but it’s also one of my top book recommendations if you don’t know what to read. It starts fairly slowly, but soon becomes an incredible book that’s just as fantastic as Verghese’s 2023 bestseller The Covenant of Water.

Cutting for Stone is the story of Marion and Shiva Stone, twin brothers bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, coming of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002)

Kafka on the Shore is Murakami at his best: weird, escapist, and still so perceptive about what it feels like to be human. It’s one of my favourite books to get lost in and a real modern classic.

Comprising two distinct but interrelated plots, the narrative runs back and forth between the life of fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura, who has run away from home, and an aging man called Nakata.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

A Little Life has become known as the book with content warnings. Don’t read A Little Life and expect an easy read with a happy ending. But I still think it’s a book that offers beauty and – at times – a glimmer of hope.

Hanya Yanagihara’s modern classic novel is a group coming-of-age story about four bright and ambitious men who meet at college as randomly assigned roommates and remain crucial parts of each other’s lives.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

All the Light We Cannot See book

All the Light We Cannot See nails the perfect formula for a story. It’s a heartbreaking book about love and life that will change the way you see the world.

As a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of WWII.

Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)

Circe book cover

One of the best modern novels I’ve read this decade, Circe is Madeline Miller’s captivating and defiant reimagining of the daughter of Helios and the ocean nymph Perse.

After unleashing her strange and destructive powers, Circe is banished to the island of Aiaia. But she won’t be left in peace for long, and it’s for an unexpected visitor, the mortal Odysseus, whom Circe will risk everything. If you love reading this, you can also get excited for the HBO Max adaptation of Circe.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

How could I ignore Donna Tartt in a collection of modern classic books? The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt’s 2013 masterpiece of love, loss, and obsession. In this Pulitzer Prize winner, a young New Yorker grieving the loss of his mother is dragged into a gritty underworld of art and wealth.

(Note: At Donna Tartt’s usual cadence of a book a decade, we should be expecting another book soon… at least in theory.)

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (2000)

Book_Prodigal Summer

Although Demon Copperhead won Kingsolver the Pulitzer, it’s Prodigal Summer that I always recommend. Crafted with luscious prose and depicting an abundant summer in bloom, Prodigal Summer is one of the best modern novels set in nature.

The beautifully written story has three parallel plots, all focused around a farming community in the Appalachians. This trio must start afresh, discover who they really are, and have faith in new beginnings.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020)

Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Piranesi is the story of a man who inhabits a mysterious and labyrinthine world of halls and chambers, known as the House, and spends his days exploring its many rooms and tending to its needs.

Susanna Clarke’s unique blend of fantasy and mystery, combined with gorgeous poetic language, has made this novel a true modern classic.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)

With her signature combination of cultural commentary and introspective reflection, Alison Bechdel is one of the most significant voices in contemporary queer and feminist literature of the 21st century. (She’s also the name behind the Bechdel Test.)

Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, is one of the best books of the 21st century, innovatively using the graphic novel format to tell a deeply personal story that explores themes of family, identity, and the nature of memory.

11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

If you ask book lovers for their can’t-put-down book recommendations, you’ll probably get bored of hearing 11/22/63. But it really is fantastically gripping.

When the world lost President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, a country changed. But here, Stephen King asks – in his characteristic gripping way – what if someone could change it back?

That person turns out to be Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Maine, whose friend and owner of the local diner, Al, lets him in on a secret. He shares that his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958, where every turn leads to a troubled loner hatching a plan.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)

Pachinko is a modern masterpiece – and absolutely one of the best books of the 21st century so far. This five-hundred-page epic about multiple generations of a Korean immigrant family (and their changing fortunes) spans their homeland, Japan, and the US.

I re-read Pachinko in time for the Apple TV adaptation and found so much to fall in love with all over again. It’s so raw and compulsively readable – and a recommendation with one of the highest satisfaction rates for people who don’t know what to read.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)

Not only is The Kite Runner one of the most popular books of the twenty-first century, but it’s also one of the most emotional books you’ll ever read. In fact, you’ll probably never forget it.

This is Khaled Hosseini’s story of Amir, a young boy from Kabul, and his relationship with his friend and servant, Hassan, against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

I could choose several novels by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the best modern classic books. But if I had to pick just one, I’d recommend Americanah, her striking 2013 story of two Nigerians making their way in the US and the UK.

Ngozi Adichie’s modern bestseller raises universal questions of race, belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for identity and a home.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011)

My Brilliant Friend is one of the best portrayals of female friendship in fiction, as seen through the lens of Elena and Lila, who grow up in a working-class neighborhood in Naples in the 1950s.

Read this modern classic for lyrical prose, emotional complexities, and a vivid look at the social and cultural milieu of post-war Italy.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)

Normal People is the classic modern (and very dysfunctional) love story. It will make you want to scream at its characters, but if you’re anything like me, you can probably recognise something of yourself in them. Sally Rooney’s bestseller should be required reading for twentysomethings.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009)

Brooklyn is one of the few modern novels I was required to read (in this case, as part of a modern Irish literature university module) that became one of my favourite books.

Colm Tóibín’s transatlantic story is one of the best modern novels about home and belonging, as well as a powerful exploration of how those notions – alongside our identity – are challenged the moment we leave our homeland to live abroad. Now in 2024, you can look forward to the much-awaited sequel, Long Island, in May.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)

As one of the most influential young adult novels ever written, Noughts & Crosses is Malorie Blackman’s groundbreaking exploration of race, identity, and social injustice through the lens of a dystopian alternate reality.

The book tells the story of Sephy, a “Cross”, and Callum, a “Nought”, who fall in love in a society where the racial power dynamic is reversed from that of our world.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

The first person to win the Booker Prize for two novels in a trilogy (!), Hilary Mantel was a literary giant. Any of the books in the Thomas Cromwell series can be classed as modern classic books – or the best historical fiction of all time.

With masterful storytelling and meticulous research to begin the trilogy, Wolf Hall is Hilary Mantel’s impeccably crafted tale of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to become one of the most powerful men in the court of King Henry VIII.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

Homegoing is Yaa Gyasi’s powerful multi-generational novel that follows the lives of two half-sisters born in the eighteenth century, Effia and Esi, and their descendants across eight generations in Ghana and America.

As one sister marries an Englishman and leads a life of comfort, the other sister is captured and sold into a very different life. With outstanding prose, this extraordinary novel illuminates America’s troubled history and legacy today.

The best modern books of the 90s that are now classics

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (1995)

You can argue that Northern Lights isn’t the best book in the trilogy, but it’s where His Dark Materials all begins for Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon.

With imaginative world-building, complex characters, and thought-provoking explorations of freedom, authority, and morality, Philip Pullman crafted one of the greatest modern classics.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (1993)

If you loved The Handmaid’s Tale, read Parable of the Sower next. Octavia E. Butler wrote about race and gender at a time when science fiction was almost exclusively the domain of men, and crafted a world that’s eerily similar to our own.

In this influential modern classic, the badass strong woman protagonist is a teenager who spends most of the story disguised as a man while the world around her crumbles.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

The Secret History is Donna Tartt’s bestselling modern classic with dark academia vibes, centered around a group of isolated classic students at an elite New England college.

If you want to nerd out as you read this cult favourite, I’ve compiled a list of the 30+ books mentioned in The Secret History.

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