Best Books of 2020

I’m not alone in noticing that my reading in 2020 was very different from years past. A few notable changes were: integrating audio books and middle grade fiction into my reading, as well as diving into mystery and fantasy series. There were few non-fiction books, because I slogged through them (just due to not being able to concentrate – not the content!). As usual, my top reads were literary fiction, focused on families especially, and dealing with a number of heavy issues.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I’m not “ashamed” of anything in my reading life, except for maybe having gotten two degrees in English literature without having read any Russian literature. I have tried! Oh, I have tried! Knowing that I have almost no foundation in Russian lit, I thought this book wouldn’t be for me. But during the pandemic, when I couldn’t get any new books, I picked this book up off my bookshelf and I was blown away. It’s supposed to be a slow read, but I couldn’t put it down.

Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the attic of the Metropol hotel in Moscow in 1922. That’s it! That’s our story. He lives there for decades, with all the Russian history unfolding outside the doors. I didn’t expect to fall in love with Rostov and this story. But this might very well be my favorite book of 2020.

“After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”

Amor Towles

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

I loved the character of Juliet so much. She was written so perfectly, flaws and struggles, musings and conversations with other moms. Struggling to write, struggling to parent, struggling to adapt in suburbia. She wrote motherhood so well.
I saw some complaints about the politics being heavy-handed in the novel and I didn’t find that to be true. I actually loved reading about a couple where one partner becomes increasingly conservative, and how that affects the marriage. It’s something I’ve wondered about, how it would be hard to find yourself in a marriage where you disagree so profoundly on a deep issue. I liked how we saw the marriage evolve, and this was just one part of it.
Unfortunately this novel is really being advertised as “survival at sea” and I think that’s not really fair. It’s a novel about a marriage and they happen to be at sea for a good part of it. Author Amity Gaige explains, “I started with the notion that the book would be a kind of a duet, a call and response—a lament of a wife, and the slightly echoey rebuttal of her husband.” I love how she explained it. 

“But I am a mother. Gradually, I just gave them all away, all my spaces, one by one, down to the very last closet.”

Amity Gaige

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

It’s 1934 and we’re in Atlantic City. Esther and Joseph Adler rent out their house and live in the apartment above their bakery for the summer. Their daughter Fannie is pregnant and in the hospital on bed-rest for the remainder of her pregnancy. Fannie’s daughter Gussie is living wth them, along with Anna, who emigrated from Nazi Germany. Florence is planning to spend the summer training to cross the English Channel, when tragedy hits.

This book has some trigger warnings, of course. But it’s a fascinating and beautifully done portrait of a Jewish family.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

I thought this might be too heavy or emotional to read in the first few weeks of the shutdown, but my library had a copy in the Rapid Reads section, so I checked it out just before it closed. I finished the book in 2 days.
It was not an emotionally manipulative book. It was a tender exploration of grief and how the loss of his parents and brother affected 12 year old Edward. They are on a plane that crashed while traveling from New York to Los Angeles. How it crashes, we don’t find out until later in the story. But we learn that Edward is the sole survivor.
The story flip-flopped between the day of the accident and after the accident, over a few years. I loved the story in the air, as the reader learns about different people on the flight. Well-developed characters, who are all minor, but nevertheless, fascinating. The characters in the “after” chapters, are also wonderful. Well-developed, interesting, and very real.

“Humans need community, for our emotional health. We need connection, a sense of belonging. We are not built to thrive in isolation.”

Ann Napolitano

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

This was such a creative, inventive time-travel story. It begins in 1982 and Oona is about to turn 19. The coming year brings with it some big decisions – go to London to study or stay in New York with her boyfriend and pursue music? Except when she wakes up on January 1, she’s 51 years old. She discovers that every year she’ll jump to another age. I was sad to see it end because it was just a lot of fun! Plus, the pop-culture references are fantastic.

“There would be bad days, there always would. But she’d collect these good days, each one illuminated, and string them together until they glowed brightly in her memory like Christmas lights in a mirrored room.”

Margarita Montimore

Other Notable Favorite Books from 2020: