The best historical novels set in New York City

Eileen Charbonneau Author Of Watch Over Me
By Eileen Charbonneau

The Books I Picked & Why

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton

Book cover of The House of Mirth

Why this book?

House of Mirth is a classic by Edith Wharton, described perfectly by its author as: “ A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.” It’s the Gilded Age and 29-year-old society girl Lily Bart’s time to find a husband is in its last season. ”Why must a girl pay so dearly," Lily contemplates being bored all afternoon by dull Percy Grice, "on the bare chance that he might ultimately do her the honor of boring her for life?" A more interesting Lawrence Selden arrives and Lily’s downfall begins.

House of Mirth continues to shake me in its powerful evocation of being trapped in class and trappings of wealth. Edith Wharton’s vivid New York neighborhoods become cherished characters in Lily’s tragedy. As an American and a born New Yorker, reading of the struggles of another time deeply resonates with me.

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The Museum of Extraordinary Things

By Alice Hoffman

Book cover of The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Why this book?

This one is set in the early 20th century. Coralie, works at her father’s Coney Island freak show as a mermaid and has extraordinary swimming abilities but is as sheltered as a goldfish in a bowl. She meets and falls in love with a photographer who is on hand to document the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This is for readers who like their historical fiction touched with that kitchen-sink magical realism that Alice Hoffman is celebrated for. Turn-of-the-century New York sparkles throughout. This one is closer to my own Melting Pot roots and its eccentric characters seem so New York!

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

By Betty Smith

Book cover of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Why this book?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is another classic, this time of the coming-of-age variety. The humble, industrial area of the city is evoked with gritty realism here. Protagonist Francie’s early 1900s neighborhood is as alive as its resourceful heroine struggling with the challenges of poverty, an adored alcoholic father, and family survival. Both Brooklyn and Francie will stay in your heart forever. There is so much beyond a child’s control, especially in a world dominated by poverty. I am deeply touched by this story and all its film adaptations.

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Time and Again

By Jack Finney

Book cover of Time and Again

Why this book?

Written and illustrated in 1970, his one’s for time travel story buffs, like me. “Pure New York fun” is how the New York Times described this nostalgic recreation of the upper West Side in the late nineteenth century. It surrounds a love story full of adventure and human devotion that may remind you of the movies Somewhere in Time, Frequency, and Mirage. I’m a sucker for a love story that defies time, place, and physics. Enjoy!

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The Spectral City

By Leanna Renee Hieber

Book cover of The Spectral City

Why this book?

The Spectral City series by Leanna Hieber is for those who like their Gaslight era New York history mixed with ghosts! Narrated by a young woman with the gift of ghost communicator, she sees spirits beyond the veil of our corporal existence. And what a world is there! Her mystery-cracking team helps her confront the dark world. Don’t worry—attention to historical details is spot on, and so is police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt’s confidence in his sleuth. I love a ghost story where the ghosts have afterlives of their own, don’t you? Enjoy these detective stories with unique sidekicks of their resourceful heroine.

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