12 Books That Epitomize Summer in NYC
Electric Lit is 12 years old! Help support the next dozen years by helping us raise $12,000 for 12 years, and get exclusive merch!
Romantic and serene, but also kind of gross and smelly
Yes, New York City is a magical place — the concrete jungle, the city that never sleeps; if you make it there, you’ll make it in Kansas for sure — but when summer hits, the Big Apple morphs into something new entirely. How to describe it? It’s sort of…a vortex of stink and suspicion, where iced-c0ffee addicts stumble between air conditioned buildings and straphangers jostle for the breeziest real estate on an A train that runs nowhere and is always late. But then there’s Shakespeare in the Park! And your friend’s roof deck!
Despite these very real drawbacks that surely reduce the appeal of NYC come summer, writers have still managed to depict it as an intriguing place, with adventure and romance aplenty. Below is a list of twelve books with pivotal scenes taking place in New York during the hottest time of the year. Unlike our pools list, this one offers little to no prospects of cooling down.
1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
For Francine Nolan, the protagonist of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Williamsburg in the summer is a place of peace. “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912,” the book’s first sentence reads. In fact, the whole first section is a description of the many things Francine does and places she goes on a typical Saturday, including cashing in some junkyard scraps for pennies, visiting the library, seeing her family, and falling asleep comfortably. Doesn’t quite sound like Williamsburg of overpriced coffee and Instagram-able food we know and love today.
2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar begins in the summer of 1953, with Esther Greenwood going through an experience many young New Yorkers can relate to: a summer internship. The 19-year old gets a prestigious editorial intern position at a women’s magazine in the city, but it all goes downhill from there. As the various occurrences unfold during the summer, Esther begins experiencing symptoms of depression.
3. City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
City on Fire tells the story of a number of individuals scattered throughout corners of New York. They are linked by an occurrence that shocks and scares the city: the blackout of July 13, 1977. Over a thousand or so pages, Hallberg delves into the lives of these people and how they are influenced by a single tragedy, as the city is thrust into madness one summer night. “Beyond the window, dew coaxed scents from inert earth: the loam of treeboxes, the faintly salty asphalt, the whole summer perfume of rotting fruit peels and faisandes coffee grounds wafting from the trash piled at the curbs,” one character observes. Sounds about right.
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Time plays an important role in this novel. It begins in early summer and the events unfold in the coming hot months. Gatsby’s hope for a relationship with Daisy reaches its peak during this season, when the earth is in full bloom. However, as the summer comes to an end and so does the vitality of the land, and things start to get grim. (Remember that scene at the Plaza?)
5. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is an old-fashioned Bildungsroman that tells the story of 13-year old Theo Decker and his misadventures after swiping a famous painting. Spanning both time and space, a large chunk of the novel takes place in New York City throughout its various seasons. Tartt, who spends a great deal of time in the city, perfectly captured the “fever hot sidewalks,” “hot wind from the subway grates,” and “humidity and garbage smells” that just about sum up the experience of being in Manhattan on a scorching summer day.
6. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Although Sag Harbor doesn’t take place in any of the five boroughs that make up New York City, the plot unfolds in the quintessential weekend retreat spot for many New Yorkers: the Hamptons. The novel’s main characters are Benji and Reggie Cooper, African American teenage brothers just done with the academic year at their Manhattan prep school and spending the summer in the predominantly white Long Island village.
7. Money by Martin Amis
The 1984 novel is narrated by and tells the story of John Self, an advertising director invited to NYC to shoot his first film. Self is what you would expect a successful person in the entertainment business to be like: messy, hedonistic, narcissistic, and drunk more often than not. The novel takes place in the summer of 1981 as he moves between London and NYC. In both locations, he spends his time at strip joints, fast food spots, and bars — Self is the embodiment of the era’s greed and the city’s tendency to facilitate and encourage it.
8. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
The 2009 National Book Award for Fiction winner, Let the Great World Spin centers around one summer day in 1974, when a French tightrope-walker crosses a wire suspended between the World Trade Center buildings. Throughout, McCann gives readers a glimpse into the city’s past, comprised of stories starring immigrants, socialites, and prostitutes. The book casts NYC as a place where unbelievable things can and do happen on a daily basis.
9. Summer in Williamsburg by Daniel Fuchs
The title of this book says it all. Summer in Williamsburg evokes the powerful Jewish-American experience as it unfolds in a tenement building in 1930s Brooklyn. The rooms and apartments within are comprised of an assortment of people: families, students, artists, idlers, etc. In describing the “ordinary” residents, Fuchs illustrates a dynamic community that speaks to a larger, collective history.
10. The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
This novel takes place at a longtime monumental location for New Yorkers during the summer: Coney Island. Coralie is the daughter of the sadistic owner of the beachside freakshow, The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She is forced to swim in the sea every night during the summer months to hone her skills as the show’s mermaid. Incorporating both romance and mystery, the novel captures the essence of early 20th century New York City.
11. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis, young Irish immigrant moving to New York in the 1950’s. When settled, she meets an Italian-American named Tony, who teaches her the ins and outs of the borough and the city. They go to stereotypically New York summer sites — Coney Island and a ball game…
12. Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
A children’s picture book, Tar Beach tells the story of Cassie’s biggest dream coming true: going where she wants. One day, the stars help her fly across the city on a summer night from the rooftop of her Harlem apartment building (the “tar beach”).