Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down , Rosecrans Baldwin
In this new memoir, half love letter and half Dear John letter to the City of Light, Paris routinely beats Baldwin down, makes a fool out of him, raises him up, and fills him with wonder, all over the same café crème. The book is as much about the city as it is about Baldwin — perhaps not unusual for a “year abroad”-style memoir, but you’ve never seen Paris quite like this. She is relatively lewd, but ultimately, pretty forgiving. C’est la vie.
number9dream , David Mitchell
In his second novel, Mitchell captures the blinding energy of Tokyo like few others. Indeed, “the most engaging character of number9dream is the city itself,” The Guardian writes, “a zirconium-gothic Weberian nightmare, a metal-and-glass superbeast of energy and automation. The worker drones of Tokyo swirl through the prose in their faceless millions, migrating ceaselessly between work and home. The city goes continuously about its business, grinding out its complementary products of capital and pleasure, and crushing humanity in the process.”
Ulysses , James Joyce
Though we don’t think we have to tell you, James Joyce’s quintessential city-as-character novel, Ulysses, takes place over the course of one day in Dublin, as Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom wander the city, go about their business, and interact with a gallery of Dubliners, each stranger than the last.
Middlesex , Jeffrey Eugenides
Sure, it’s a family epic that culminates in a confused hermaphroditic teenager’s coming of age, but it also features a brilliant characterization of the city of Detroit, which — forgive us — is not one of those cities that everyone and their mother is rushing to personify. Indeed, when the book came out, the Detroit Free Press gushed, “at last Detroit has its novel. What Dublin got from James Joyce — a sprawling, ambitious, loving, exasperated and playful chronicle of all its good and bad parts — Detroit has from native son Eugenides in these 500 pages.”
Open City , Teju Cole
In this much-acclaimed novel, the city — first New York, then Brussels — serves as sounding board and, often, best friend for Julius, a young Nigerian doctor with a case of thoughtful wanderlust. Strolling the city streets and remarking on what he finds there, Julius allows his pavement-coated friend to influence him, surprise him, and give him strength.
The Cutting Room , Louise Welsh
In Welsh’s debut novel, the city of Glasgow shines as the standout character — or perhaps “shines” isn’t the right word. Welsh’s Glasgow has been described as “gothic, dismal, decaying and frightening in equal measure,” but however grisly, it’s one of the strongest forces in the novel, dark, permeating, and ever-present.
Lush Life , Richard Price
What Price did for Baltimore as a writer on The Wire he does for the Lower East Side of Manhattan in Lush Life, a book that pulses with the city’s energy, the place digging its claws into every exchange and description. In this New York, the LES is two-faced, half crime-riddled and rough, half catering to shiny hipsters with their parents’ money. Hey, not every character is simple.
Petersburg , Andrei Bely
St. Petersburg functions as more or less the main character in Bely’s tragically under-appreciated masterpiece (Nabokov counted it the third best novel of the twentieth century, after Ulysses and The Metamorphosis, and before In Search of Lost Time), an antecedent to Ulysses, with its own agency running the show. “The gossip of the Nevsky began to plait itself,” Bely says of the city’s main street, as Nikolai wrings his hands.
War for the Oaks , Emma Bull
In this urban fantasy set in the streets of the Twin Cities, Bull infuses Minneapolis not only with magic, but with an irrepressible life of its own, rendering it with tough affection and effortless beauty.
Fortress of Solitude , Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem is pretty much the patron saint of Brooklyn, and this novel about growing up in downtown Brooklyn in the 1970s brings the city into stark and often hilarious relief, if only because it so often seems the round hole to protagonist Dylan Ebdus’s square peg. Indeed, much of the time the novel pits Dylan against Brooklyn — but, of course, it’s also about Dylan in love with Brooklyn. Isn’t that how it always goes?