Historical or Nostalgic Fiction?

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Historical or Nostalgic Fiction?

Recent Fiction set in 1980s and 1990s

Historical fiction is often defined as a novel that takes place in the past. But in 2017, can a novel set in 1996 or even 2000 be considered historical? Rather: if the writer and/or reader vividly remembers a time only 15-20 years in the past, reliving that past veers into nostalgia rather than history. Then again, what if the novel is for a YA crowd who never experienced the 80s or 90s? When does it become historical? These novels all take place between 1980 and 2001 and were written by authors looking back. Some of the stories simply live in the time; others use the past decades’ events and their quirks as plot devices. Whether or not you are ready to relive the bad hairdos of the eighties or the bad hair accessories of the 90s, this crop of titles has a dose of nostalgia for everyone.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
It's 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska where we find an unlikely couple. Eleanor and Park bond over the best comics and mixtapes only the 80s could offer. Their mixtapes draw the two characters closer and give readers excellent playlists including U2 and the Cure. Neither character fits in at school or at home; so they find first love together. This heart-warming love story is tinged bittersweet with the abuse Eleanor receives at home and bullying at school. Although being set in the 80s, this novel explores the topics of immigrant identity, poverty, gender stereotypes, and bullying that are just as relevant today. If you read one book from this list - make it this gem of a novel.

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney
Set in 1980s England, a private detective delves into his estranged family heritage when he takes the case of a missing woman. Raised in the “goriji” - or non-gypsy - way, he returns to the Roma society of his father’s childhood to investigate a disappearance. The Invisible Ones throws out the occasional reference to the Smiths or other 80s placeholder but this story is not nostalgic about the 80s. The 1980s England described in this mystery novel is not the fun, yuppie stereotype but rather shows the alienation and discrimination that Travelers and Roma people feel. The time period aids the plot only in the obstacles it provides: no cell phones, internet, or reliable databases. The Invisible Ones tells the reader - the 80s are over and that’s a good thing.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell
This novel defies genres with a mix of science fiction and romance. It explores coming of age after you’re an adult and asks what would you do if you could change the past? Georgie McCool is a television writer with a young daughter and husband who is drifting away. Georgie is pre-occupied by making her next career move - writing a 90s inspired high school drama à la Freaks and Geeks and My So Called Life with her best friend. It is only when she discovers her family’s old landline phone can call her husband back in the 90s that she starts rethinking her life. Through this unexplained connection, Georgie falls back in love with her husband and wants to make things right. While only partially set in the 90s, this book is straight nostalgia for the decade at its best.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
The period of gay-conversion camps may seem far away in the past, but even in the early 1990s, young men and women were sent to camps to “pray the gay away.” Montana teenager Cameron is sent away by her aunt and grandmother in order to be “re-educated.” The time period in this book reflects many of the same experiences of the author’s childhood. But it also represents rural America in an interesting and relatable way. While set in the beginning of the decade, it also explores how small-town America can often feel timeless or, at its worst, stuck in time. Not just in social attitudes towards the LGTBQ community, but also in keeping up with the time they live in now. This book is well-written but can be hard for some to read. It describes a sentiment of intolerance that is best left in the past.

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
This YA title from the author of Thirteen Reasons Why tells the story of two best friends who use a CD-ROM version of AOL in 1995 only to find their future selves’ Facebook pages. While the premise of this book is fascinating with a twist on standard time travel themes, it tends to be a bit reference heavy. As a YA book, you’d think most of the intended readers are teenagers or young adults who were either born in the 2000s or only a few years into the 90s. So why pepper the story with references to obscure pop culture? Answer: Nostalgia for the millennials who grew up then. This book was written for their benefit including exploring what a cultural force Facebook has become in our lives.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
This story takes place last in our nostalgia timeline. Beginning in 2000 and ending shortly after September 11, 2001, this novel set is set during the internet bubble. It also is a perfect book end to the prosperity and American cultural dominance that was the 80s and 90s. September 11th essentially ended the 1990s and the yuppie boom that immediately preceded it. But despite the real events in the novel, the story is really about two sisters who struggle with expectations from all sides. Whether it is pressure from work, family, or each other, it almost breaks them apart. This is a timeless story is filled with well-developed characters who feel real in the world they live in rather than part of a novel.