by Jessica Ferri
The art of fiction is still alive and well, as proven by 2019’s crop of extraordinary debut novels. Although the topics are as diverse as the writers themselves, these novels all have one thing in common: They are stories of liberation. Get a pen and paper ready: You’ll want to jot down this list for future reference.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
To an outsider it might seem like Alicia Berenson has the perfect life. She is a successful painter married to a successful fashion photographer. But after she shoots her husband five times in the face, she goes mute. Theo Faber is the psychologist tasked with breaking her silence and discovering her motive. This best-selling debut thriller from screenwriter Alex Michaelides raises a mirror to readers on keeping up appearances.
Cape May by Chip Cheek
Like the novels of Ian McEwan which reveal something sinister lurking just below the most natural-seeming desires, Cape May has newlyweds Henry and Effie disappointed at the lack of passion during their honeymoon. Morale improves when they find themselves thrown together with another couple, the glamorous and reckless Clara and Max. Though the grass may always seem greener on the other side, Cape May presents the dangers of marriage to those who haven’t yet had the time to get to know themselves.
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
To say the undisputed queen of celebrity profiles’ first novel was highly anticipated would’ve been an understatement. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble tells the story of Toby Fleishman, who finds himself saddled with his two kids when ex-wife Rachel drops them off and doesn’t look back. Toby’s entry into the single-life is cut short with the weight of caregiving, and in his search for Rachel, he’s forced to take another look at the reasons behind the demise of his marriage.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
This debut novel from poet Ocean Vuong is deeply elegiac, written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read. “Dear Ma,” it begins, “I am writing to reach you — even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” This beautiful novel glitters over an ocean from Vietnam to America. It tells simple but essential love stories: a mother’s love for her son and his desire to tell her of his life, of his first love.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is best known for his brilliant book Between the World and Me, a letter to his teenage son, on the history of racism in America. His highly-anticipated debut novel, The Water Dancer also deals with racism through the deep stain of slavery in America. Hiram Walker was born into bondage. A brush with death pushes him towards freedom, and he joins his brothers and sisters in the North through the underground network to fight for life.
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin
A Taiwanese family of six is hit hard when their two children Gavin and Ruby contract meningitis and only Gavin survives. Their father, struggling to make a living in Anchorage, works as a plumber. Grief over his daughter’s death leads to an accident in his work, and in this devastating debut, Chia-Chia Lin chronicles a family’s desperate search for a foothold in a foreign and unforgiving place.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
Many stories begin with a vanishing and a community’s struggle to understand what happened. In Julia Phillips’ debut novel, two young sisters go missing at the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Russia. The critically acclaimed Disappearing Earth shows the reverberating echoes of violence and loss. Despite its remote setting, the experience and emotions in this community are eerily relatable.
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
Some might know Lee Miller as the muse of Man Ray, or for her self-portrait taken in Hitler’s bathtub. The life of this incredible woman is told in this debut historical novel by Whitney Scharer. Behind the many photographs in which Miller worked as model, there was an ambitious artist eager to learn all she could and to be taken seriously. This sweeping historical saga is an impressive page-turner from a first-time novelist.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
Mystery abounds in this debut novel by Angie Kim, the structure of which fans of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere or Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies will recognize. A tiny community in Virginia has found the cure to everything through an unconventional medical treatment. But when an accident occurs at the center, their secret is revealed, sending shockwaves through their world and drawing in outsiders asking questions, threatening their safe haven.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Fans of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or harrowing memoirs like Tara Westover’s Educated will recognize the same brutality in The Water Cure. A man named King keeps his wife and three daughters in total isolation on an island where he practices “water cures” to keep his women pure. But the invasion of two men and one boy from the mainland help the sisters to realize what they’ve been subjected to and how they must escape.