Forget about dark academia: the next big thing in fiction is dark suburbia novels. Ever since the days of Norman Rockwell, there’s been something creepy about white picket fences and playing “happy” families. Behind those brightly coloured doors, there are all kinds of awful secrets playing out. Here are ten fantastic dark suburbia novels to get you started.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Liane Moriarty is undoubtedly Australia’s reigning queen of dark suburbia novels, and Big Little Lies is the best of her best. The story revolves around three mothers of students at Pirriwee Public School, and a tragic event at a fundraiser trivia night. Jane is dealing with the aftermath of the sexual assault in which Ziggy was conceived. Madeline is hella jealous that her teenage daughter from a previous marriage is growing close to her ex-husband’s new hippie wife, Bonnie. Celeste’s relationship with her wealthy, charismatic husband, Perry, is abusive and toxic (to say the least). And the three of them strike up a friendship – more of an alliance, really, to protect themselves in the political battles with other factions of school mums. Read my full review of Big Little Lies here.
Bonus: read my review of Liane Moriarty’s prior novel, The Husband’s Secret, here.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Celeste Ng has gone in a different direction of late, but she got her start with dark suburbia novels. Everything I Never Told You was her debut, back in 2014. It begins in 1977. The Lee family appears to be average in every way – working father, stay-at-home mother, three kids and a comfortable home in Ohio. Except that their middle child, Lydia, is dead… and they don’t know it, yet. Lydia’s death forces everyone in the Lee family to reevaluate their lives, and reveals some hard home truths. As an investigation plays out in the background, they realise they didn’t know Lydia – or each other – as well as they thought. Read my full review of Everything I Never Told You here.
Bonus: read my full review of Celeste Ng’s next dark suburbia novel, Little Fires Everywhere, here.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Okay, fine, Gone Girl is almost a cliche at this point – but Gillian Flynn’s 2012 best-seller was totally the beginning of the dark suburbia novel renaissance. Nick Dunne’s wife, Amy, disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. There’s a sign of a struggle in the living room, but no other real clues as to where she’s gone. The police suspect Nick was involved somehow in her disappearance, but he swears he had nothing to do with it. As the police investigate, and Amy’s family launches desperate appeals for her safe return, the truth of her disappearance unravels and it’s more shocking than anything you could have imagined. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.
Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain
Big Lies In A Small Town is one of the dark suburbia novels guaranteed to take you by surprise. Not only is it a gripping mystery, it’s also a fascinating study of art, race, privilege, and human relationships. The story centers around a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. “What happened to Anna Dale? Are the clues hidden in the decrepit mural? Can Morgan overcome her own demons to discover what exists beneath the layers of lies?” Read my full review of Big Lies In A Small Town here.
Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson
There’s nothing more suburban than chardonnay-soaked mothers gathering in a basement for a book club. That’s where Never Have I Ever begins, at one of these monthly book club meetings – but there’s a surprise in store, a new member attending for the first time. The host, Amy Whey, is exactly what you’d expect in a “suburban mom” protagonist, and she loves her sweet-and-wholesome family more than anything. Her perfectly normal life of simple pleasures is all up-ended, however, when Roux suggests a drinking game and her darkest secrets might all be revealed. Read my full review of Never Have I Ever here.
Bonus: read my review of another one of Joshilyn Jackson’s dark suburbia novels, Mother May I, here.
The Recovery Of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel
The Recovery Of Rose Gold has all the hallmarks of dark suburbia novels, except that it doesn’t revolve around a dead body or bloodshed. Instead, it’s the darkest kind of secret that fuels this novel, one that sees a mother harming her own child. The story begins where most thrillers might end: with the mother, Patty, being released from prison and her daughter/victim, Rose Gold, accepting her back into her life in an apparent attempt at reconciliation. It’s told through their alternating perspectives, with Patty depicting the events of the present, and Rose Gold giving an account of the past – the two, naturally, meet at the end when “all is revealed”. It’s not a whodunnit, but a sinister game of power and control. Read my full review of The Recovery Of Rose Gold here.
Remember Me by Charity Norman
New Zealand is probably not the most popular location for dark suburbia novels, but Remember Me deserves a lot more attention than it’s got. The proximity of neighbourhoods to wilderness offers a lot of scope for mystery and suspense. Emily Kirkland has built a life for herself as a children’s book illustrator in London, far away from the town in Aotearoa New Zealand where she was raised. She’s called home by a concerned neighbour: her father is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, and he can no longer safely care for himself. Through the mists of her father’s failing memory, Emily gets glimpses of the past, and what might have happened to missing woman Leah Patara. But does she really want to know? Read my full review of Remember Me here.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Virgin Suicides is one of the classic dark suburbia novels, haunting the dreams of readers since the ’90s. It’s “a lyrical and timeless tale of sex and suicide that transforms and mythologizes suburban middle-American life”. The five Libson sisters are the very picture of all American girls, on the surface. Beneath lurks a darkness that we can hardly imagine. They are objects of fascination for the boys of their Detroit neighbourhood, all the more so when they begin to die by their own hands. Over the course of the novel, their neighbours and friends try to piece together the truth of their fatal melancholy.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The subjects of some of these dark suburbia novels cut too close to home for thousands of American families. We Need To Talk About Kevin reflects a tragic reality, that hundreds of children are injured and killed each year in school shootings. Lionel Shriver’s novel interrogates this dark truth of contemporary American life, by following a mother’s desperate search for understanding. Her son, Kevin, went on a deadly rampage, and she wonders whether his violence might be linked to her own ambivalence about motherhood. This dark suburbia novel is not for the faint of heart.
Tampa by Ailsa Nutting
If you’ve already made your way through all the dark suburbia novels for beginners, this is the advanced class. Tampa is one of the most controversial dark suburbia novels, one that’s been likened to a contemporary Lolita or American Psycho. Celeste Price is a twenty-something school teacher who harbours dark desires, to seduce her 14 year old student. She is unrepentant and explicit in her explanation of how she groomed Jack Patrick, “a monstress of pure motivation”. This book will surely turn your stomach, but it’s “laced with black humour and crackling sexualised prose”.
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