Fantastic First Novels

Anacostia LibraryStaff Picks

Fantastic First Novels

There’s a saying in music: a band has their whole lives to record their first album, and a year to record their second. I think that this idea could definitely apply to authors as well. Pressure that often appears after a great first novel can sometimes affect their entire creative process. Maybe that’s why first novels are often remembered fondly as introductions to fresh and idiosyncratic voices. Listed here are a few of my favorite first novels.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

This is one of my favorite books of all time, and the story behind its publication is amazing in its own right. The author committed suicide before the book was even published, and it was only due to the persistence of Toole’s mother that the book was released at all. It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature upon its release. The book tells the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, a very large and very opinionated man living in New Orleans in the 1960s. Ignatius lives with his mother, and to call the relationship codependent would be an understatement. Due to a series of events, Ignatius finds himself needing to do things that he finds below him, such as finding a job and interacting with people in a friendly manner. This book may not be for everyone, and if you don’t find any humor in Ignatius or the situations that he finds himself in within the first few chapters, ignore this recommendation. If it grabs you like it grabbed me, though, you will love the story and wish that Toole had remained alive to write more amazing stories.

The Bees, by Laline Paull

This is the first novel by Paull, who is better known as a playwright. It tells the story of Flora 717, a bee who is born into the task of sanitation in her hive. Her job is to keep the hive clean, to ensure that all of the other (and seemingly more important) tasks can be completed by members of the higher classes. Flora, however, exhibits skills and talents that enable her to move up the ranks of the hive. The story itself may not be the most original, but the sensory experience of reading this book is truly stunning. The smells and tastes of Flora’s life as described by Paull are incredibly beautiful, and elevate this book to one of my favorites that I’ve read over the last few years.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

The first novel by British author Smith is a beautifully written story that spans generations. It starts with Archibald in the 1970's, a British man who has just made the decision to end his own life. It seems that the universe has other plans, however, and Archibald is saved. From there, the narrative blossoms and takes us both forward and backwards in time and scope, including into Eastern Europe during World War II, Bangladesh in the 1980's, and various parts of London. The book is beautifully written, at turns both biting and heartfelt. It is a great introduction to an amazing talent. 

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

This book drew comparisons to John Irving upon its release for its warm depiction of characters and its somewhat idyllic setting, and since I  really like Irving, it makes sense that I liked this book as well. It tells the story, mainly, of Henry Skrimshander, a college baseball player who is renowned for absolutely never making a bad throw to first base. With a set up like that, you may be able to see where some of the tension of the book comes from, but it’s the interactions between the characters and the empathetic tone of Harbach’s writing that make it a great novel, and make me excited for what he may do next.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

An incredible coming-of-age story that is told in the form a graphic novel, Satrapi tells the story of her youth and upbringing in Iran, when the country itself is undergoing tremendous upheaval. The drawings in the book are simple but do an extremely effective job of conveying the emotions that the author is going through, regarding both her maturation as a woman and the drastic changes in her society.  It follows her as she leaves Iran, and the effect it has on both Satrapi and her family. It is a great look at the people of a country that we (or at least, I) know very little about.