The line between “literary fiction” and “page turner” might’ve once been clear, but it’s surely not now. There are plenty of books that can scratch the itch to read something challenging, while simultaneously compelling you through to the very end. Here are twenty literary page turners for when you want the best of both fictional worlds.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Celeste Ng is the queen of literary page turners, crafting suburban stories that strike at the heart of our collective psychology. Little Fires Everywhere is her second novel, the one that catapulted her to stardom, famously chosen by Reese Witherspoon for her book club (and adapted by her for the screen, no less). It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position. It’s a psychological thriller, without the hack writing or “plot twists” you can sniff out a mile off. It’s a family drama with a family that actually feels like a family, rather than a mish-mash of characters convenient to the plot. Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I never, never tire of recommending this book. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves doesn’t get the attention or fanfare it deserves, probably because it’s so difficult to review and talk about without “spoiling” it for new readers. It’s a literary page turner with the mother of all twists about 70 pages in, one that turns the entire story on its head. So, you can see why we wouldn’t want to give it away! But, trust me on this, you won’t regret reading this incredible story of family, good intentions, and grief. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The world is waiting impatiently for a new literary page turner from Donna Tartt (she usually releases one about every ten years or so, and she’s past due), but returning to her 1992 novel The Secret History is a good way to pass the time. This is the ultimate dark academia novel, with a very literary sensibility. It’s got all the ingredients: a cabal of classics students, a snowy college setting, a charismatic teacher, and a murder. It’s a book that will push you to interrogate your own moral boundaries, and broaden your understanding of how the people we spend time with influence our decision-making and perception. Read my full review of The Secret History here.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has a knack for turning women’s stories into compelling literary page turners. One of the best from her impressive back-list is Alias Grace, in which she offers a fictional account of the real life and crimes of Grace Marks. She and another servant in the same household, James McDermott, were tried and convicted of the 1843 murders of the householder Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (slash secret lover) Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was sentenced to death and hanged, while Marks’s death sentence was commuted. Was she actually guilty, or was she wrongfully imprisoned? Atwood turns her story inside-out, looking for answers. Read my full review of Alias Grace here.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a super-mega-best-seller around the world, one of the most popular literary page turners of recent years. You might assume that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, or that it’s a fluffy beach read, but there’s more to this one than meets the eye. Eleanor, the titular character, is an odd duck – with good reason, it turns out. She lives a very isolated life, with an invariable routine of work during the week and vodka to pass the time on the weekends, until she falls in love and makes a new friend. That’s when she finally has the opportunity to see what a life beyond “completely fine” might be like. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
In Cold Blood is one of the most controversial literary page turners even now, nearly 60 years after its release. Truman Capote positioned it as the “first true crime novel”, an account of real events that used the techniques of fiction (plot, structure, prose) to bring the reader into the story. The thing is, when you start using fictional techniques, some of that fiction inevitably leaks into the facts. It turns out Capote took a bit of the ol’ creative license with the events of the Clutter murders, to make sure the story flowed and the characters remained consistent with his vision for them. The ethics of that are still up for debate, but it’s a cracking good read, all the same. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.
Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
A bourgeois New York divorce: eternal fodder for literary page turners. But Fleishman Is In Trouble is special, a unique path taken over well-worn ground. First off, it’s a different perspective than we’re used to, first person, masquerading as close-third person. The story isn’t narrated by either of the major players, but by an old friend with her own blind-spots and biases. Second, there’s a mystery to keep you hooked. An ex-wife and mother has disappeared off the face of the earth, and no one can seem to decide or work out why. Third… well, you’ll just have to read it to find out. Read my full review of Fleishman Is In Trouble here.
My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
My Year Of Rest And Relaxation is one of those literary page turners that just gets better and better, the more time passes and the more it lingers in your mind. The unnamed narrator has an intriguing idea, one we can all surely relate to: that she wants to sleep, for an entire year. No work, no social commitments, just sleep and Whoopi Goldberg movies on tape. That’s about the only relatable aspect of the narrator, though. She’s rich, she’s beautiful, and she’s awful. Just, truly, the worst. And there’s an awakening coming, not just for her but for the whole world.
My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
As much as we all love a bit of mystery and intrigue, sometimes it’s nice to read a literary page turner with the premise laid out completely in the title. My Sister The Serial Killer gives you exactly what it says on the tin: the story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola, who has the unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends. Braithwaite cleverly mixes crime, romance, and family saga. It’s also set in Lagos, with a remarkably strong sense of location and culture that we might more commonly associate with “place writing” (and a “place” that’s sadly not often encountered by Anglophone readers, to boot). Read my full review of My Sister The Serial Killer here.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
If you like your literary page turners with a historical/magical bent, The Underground Railroad is a must-read. This semi-speculative alternative history of the antebellum South imagines the metaphorical Underground Railroad as literal, an actual train that ferries enslaved people to other states. One would hope that it delivers them to safety, but that’s not always the case; safety is, of course, a relative concept. The journey is harrowing (to say the least) and each stop on the railroad presents a different manifestation of the reality (and the legacy) of slavery in America. Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for this incredible novel, and Barack Obama called it “terrific”. Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
The Slap is one of the more imposing literary page turners, given that it’s a bit of a brick (most editions run a minimum of 500 pages). Once you find yourself immersed in the story, though, trust that the pages will fly by. It revolves around a single event, one action that has ripple effects through the lives of everyone in attendance at an average suburban barbecue. A man slaps a misbehaving child who is not his own. This is a book about “the passions and malice that family loyalty can provoke”, the bonds of friendship and parenthood and everything that tests them.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such A Fun Age pulls a total bait-and-switch, and you can’t even be mad about it! Everything about it – kooky title, bright pink text on the cover, young protagonist – suggests you’re going to get a light-hearted beach read, but actually it’s a literary page turner that exposes the ugliest side of white feminism, class bias, and good intentions. Everyone in this book has an opinion about what should happen after a “racist incident” video goes viral, but everyone has their own horse in the race (so to speak). It’s a far more confronting and challenging read than you might be expecting, but it’s absolutely riveting and totally worthwhile. Read my full review of Such A Fun Age here.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca is one of the classic literary page turners, first published back in 1938. It’s got all the elements of an essential Gothic read – spooky haunted mansion, creepy household staff, withholding handsome men, and nervous young women – but there’s more to it than that. It’s an intensely psychological novel about a twisted marriage, one where the line between neurosis and actual danger is paper thin. Its enduring appeal is due to the fact that it’s a deeply multi-layered literary novel, disguised as romantic fiction. You come for the spooky Gothic love story, but you stay for the evergreen interrogation of women’s subservience to (and subversion of) the rule of men. Read my full review of Rebecca here.
Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason
Sorrow And Bliss was one of the most talked-about literary page turners of 2022, dividing book clubs and reading groups around the Anglophone world. Ann Patchett recommended it to readers, calling it “brilliantly faceted and extremely funny” – but not everyone agreed. At its bones, it’s a story about a woman whose life has fallen apart multiple times over, due to an untreated mental illness that manifested in her late teens. But it’s also a novel about the cruelty we can inflict on ourselves and others, the power in recognising our own faults, and the difficulty of navigating a path forward out of the rubble of a life.
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
You ever hear the premise of a story or a rough outline of its plot and think immediately: “Oh, I MUST read that!”? That’s what happened for me with The Plot, and also – coincidentally – the book’s conceit. A down-on-his-luck creative writing instructor has a student come to him with an unbelievably amazing idea for a novel. The instructor is bitter and resentful, until the student suddenly dies – that must mean his plot is up for grabs. Right? This is the kind of high-art literary thriller that will have you flipping pages right past your bedtime, but it’s so cleverly written, you won’t want to shelve it next to your schlocky pot-boilers. Read my full review of The Plot here.
Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
If you have a dark sense of humour, and appreciate searing insight into the ridiculousness of social niceties, Rabbits For Food is the literary page turner for you. Bunny lives in New York, she’s 43 years old, a writer, a middle child, and she’s married to a zoologist, with a cat named Jeffrey. She also lives with depression. The story is split into two parts: the events that lead up to her breakdown on New Year’s Eve 2008, and her experiences in the psych ward of a prestigious mental hospital after the fact. The wry, deadpan humour mixes perfectly with the dark side of mental illness in this brilliant, underrated novel. Read my full review of Rabbits For Food here.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
For the latest of her literary page turners, Barbara Kingsolver adapted Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, transporting the story to contemporary southern Appalachia. The central character in Kingsolver’s telling is a boy born to a single teenage mother, with nothing to his name besides dead his father’s good looks and the belongings crammed into their trailer home. He goes through foster care, derelict schools, athletic success, opioid addiction, great love and devastating loss. The content of Demon Copperhead might be a bummer (to say the least), but the personable narration stops it feeling like a misery parade. Read my full review of Demon Copperhead here.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
An American Marriage is the literary page turner that Oprah says has “redefined the traditional American love story”. It’s the story of Roy and Celestial, a middle-class African American couple living in Atlanta. They are educated, employed, upwardly mobile, but even though they’re newlyweds and they’ve “done everything right”, their lives are torn apart when Roy is wrongly convicted of sexually assaulting a woman. It’s not just a book about the incarceration of Black men, though; Jones has taken the maxim of writing about “people and their problems” (as opposed to simply problems personified) seriously. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.
Notes On A Scandal by Zoë Heller
The subject matter of Notes On A Scandal is repellent (Zoë Heller has said she was inspired by the real-life case of Mary Kay LeTourneau, if that gives you an idea of the relevant trigger warnings) but it’s an intense and fascinating read with superbly crafted characters, each and every one of them delightfully hateful. The story is narrated by Barbara, a veteran school teacher and lonely spinster in her spare time, who believes she has a potential new BFF in the new art teacher, Sheba. But while Barbara is integrating herself into Sheba’s life, Sheba is “falling in love” with one of her students. See? Repellent, but compelling! Read my full review of Notes On A Scandal here.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Piranesi might not be the most literary of the literary page turners – but that’s not because it’s low-quality or schlocky. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a testament to Susanna Clarke’s talent that she manages to weave genre-fiction fantasy elements into Piranesi, this highly literary philosophical novel. It’s a peculiar and enigmatic story, one that will raise questions and challenge your brain in ways you would never have expected from its length or blurb. But even if that’s not your bag, I promise you’ll enjoy reading a book with a narrator who is unreliable but not unlikeable. A refreshing change of pace! Read my full review of Piranesi here.