My favorite novels of 2020
Since 2017 I've been writing down the movies I’ve watched, in movie theaters and at home. I've never counted them, but the sight of their titles in my planner has always been an incentive to watch more. My one rule is that there must be no interruptions when watching these movies; they can't be playing in the background as I text or do something else. This year, with everything that was going on, I stopped writing movies down. I wasn’t going to movie theaters and the evidence of this gave me anxiety. But writing down what I was reading was easier, and within all of the stressors of the year I think I did okay.
My list starts off in April, which is fitting. The months of January, February and even a little bit of March seem to belong to a different year, one where there was a semblance of normal life and where the beginning of the pandemic was tinted with a little bit of novelty.
Retrospective is illuminating, creating patterns and trends that make sense when you look back. The books I read this year, made up of a mix of new and old releases, tell me a lot about what I was going through and the type of content that I looked for. No one wrote these books while in a pandemic, but they felt lonely and at times prescient.
I read a lot this year, more than I think I've read in any other year. There were some middling books, some repeats for comfort and plenty of escapism. There were also a few great books, amazing in their depiction of migration, isolation, of feeling out of place because of things out of your control, that pushed me to write something like this. Anyway, here are my favorite books of 2020:
Brooklyn: This is my first Colm Toibin novel. I am a fan of the Saoirse Ronan movie and Toibin was on my list due to how beloved he is by many readers and writers. I was initially put off by the distance in Brooklyn, the coldness of the prose, but it's not a cold novel at all. Toibin is precise in the way he describes leaving home, that feeling of returning and finding it two or three sizes too small. It’s a very real novel that feels fresh even within its historical setting. Toibin understands that once you leave home, there’s no going back. Although you may find some other home, better in many ways and worse in others, that longing stays with you.
The Vanishing Half: This is another novel that took me a while to get into but that quickly evolved into something grand, a generational epic that stands out not only by the novel's topic but by its scope. The novel tracks the life of two sisters and identical twins, and the opposite life choices that they make as they age. It goes into the history of their parents, the life of their children and how all of these paths touch and tangle. It's sweeping and timeless and the whimsy in it is so well placed that it's never alienating.
MacArthur Park: MacArthur Park is a strange book, one that’s about gay culture and gay clubs while also being about natural disasters, cults and life in New York. It’s a novel that’s about being a millennial and trying to be an artist. How that struggle brings us together but also sets us apart. It's also about how difficult it is to figure out who you are, to finally feel like an adult. MacArthur Park is a book that feels like it's listening to you and that poses the idea that other people might just be as unique as we are to ourselves.
My Cat Yugoslavia: The book's premise is crazy and the reason why I bought it: a man falls in love with a physically and psychologically abusive cat. But the novel is much more real and serious than the premise suggests. Aside from being a story about queerness, My Cat Yugoslavia is a story about otherness. The otherness of a scary animal, of gay men, of being an immigrant, of being a woman. It's rich in symbolism, providing new ideas and takes per read, but what stuck with me was its depiction of family, how we model our relationships after our parents, imitating their behaviors and dynamics.
Real Life: The bulk of the story in Real Life is told over the course of a weekend and the unraveling of Wallace, the novel's protagonist, as he faces his childhood trauma and the prospects of his future in a prestigious university in the Midwest. It's a college novel that's about annoying friendships, that takes it's time to discuss how relationships grow complicated by matters like gender, sex and race. Wallace focuses on the minutiae of life, on the look of beautiful sunset or the feel of a meal, all to distract from his inner turmoil. It's a novel where every word feels purposeful and natural, that makes you wonder how the writer pulled it off.
What Belongs To You: What Belongs To You is the book I’ve thought about most this year, one that touches upon longing and isolation, whether it’s imposed by others or by yourself. It's a book that could have only been written by a poet, that reads like a stream of consciousness. While it's primarily about a relationship that's at times a business transaction and at times an intimate friendship, the most striking part of the novel is how it allows you to enter someone else's head. The novel's protagonist provides you with a lifetime of generous and unfiltered experiences, all in less than 200 pages. What Belongs To You is the closest I got to living a different life.