The 10 Best Chicago Novels of the 21st Century – Chicago Magazine


Longigan Nails. native son. The man with the golden arm. The Adventures of Augie March. Every serious student of literature in Chicago has read these books. They were all written a long time ago, however, and they describe a city that most of us don’t recognize. However, great authors are still writing great books about Chicago. It’s time to update our local literary canon. Here are 10 of the best Chicago novels of the 21st century.

by Aleksandar Hemon

Hemon, originally from Sarajevo, was visiting Chicago when the Bosnian War broke out in 1992. He stayed here and built a career as one of the city’s most prominent fiction writers. The autobiographical man from nowhere is about Jozef Pronek, a Bosnian refugee stranded in Chicago, who supports himself by working as a Greenpeace canvasser, much like Hemon. The book takes its title from a Beatles song, which Jozef tried to imitate in a band at home. Their music has its place in all cultures; Jozef has no place in any.

by Audrey Niffenegger

An unexpected blockbuster, this modern fantasy involves a romance and marriage between Henry, a librarian at the Newberry Library, and Claire, an artist. They first “meet” when Henry is 28 and Claire is 20, but they’ve actually met several times before. Henry is afflicted with Chrono-Impairment, causing him to travel through time involuntarily. His future self repeatedly traveled back in time to meet his future wife during his youth. Eventually, his past self visits Claire in her old age. A portrait of young professionals in Chicago at the turn of the millennium, the book was adapted into a 2009 film and a 2022 HBO series.

by Adam Langer

In West Rogers Park, California Street is a border: between Muslim and Jew, militant and sedentary. Langer, who grew up in the neighborhood, created a comedic triptych of three families — the Jewish Rovners and Wasserstroms, and the mixed-race Willses — in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Langer’s adulthood captured the diversity of Rogers Park, as well as the insularity of a city that had yet to emerge from its 20th-century provincialism.

by Alaa al-Aswany

Al-Aswany, an Egyptian novelist, studied dentistry at the University of Illinois-Chicago, so there he fails his international student characters. Despite its title, Chicago is an Egyptian novel that could have taken place in any American city. All of its characters are still linked to Egypt, such as the president of the Egyptian Student Union, who reports dissident classmates to the secret police when Egypt’s current president visits Chicago. The most tragic: a medical student who drops her veil in America, becomes pregnant and is forced to have an abortion by her ambitious boyfriend.

by Veronica Roth

A young adult novel set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, Divergent follows 16-year-old Beatrice Prior as she seeks to find her place among the five factions that rule the dystopian city. Tris grew up in the Abnegations faction, but after a test reveals she’s “divergent” – a natural member of any tribe – she defaults to join the daring Dauntless. Roth published the book shortly after graduating from Northwestern, and followed it up with sequels. Insurgent and Alleviating. The 2014 film made $288 million.

by Nathan Hill

Samuel Anderson-Andresen grew up in Streamwood, the son of a stuffy father who worked in the frozen food industry and a frustrated hippie mother who suddenly abandoned the family as a teenager. Two decades later, Samuel and his mother reunite after throwing a handful of gravel at Sheldon Packer, a conservative presidential candidate campaigning in Chicago. Samuel is an English professor at a suburban northwest university. He can’t finish his novel and hopes to revive his publishing career with a story about “attacker Packer”. The book’s multi-generational narrative travels back and forth to Iowa, Norway, and to the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

by Rebecca Makkai

In 1985, Yale Tishman is a young gay art curator at Northwestern University, trying to acquire a set of prized paintings from a family in Wisconsin. In 2015, Fiona Marcus is a desperate mother, searching for her lost daughter in Paris. The scourge of AIDS in the 1980s hangs over both stories. Yale, who lives in Boys Town, loses friends and worries about her own mortality. Fiona’s brother died of the disease 30 years earlier. The details of Makkai’s period are impressive: his characters seek treatment at the Howard Brown Health Center, founded to treat LGBTQ+ patients.

by Nancy Johnson

Ruth Tuttle is young, successful, and black on the South Side of Chicago at a time when another young, successful Black South Sider is elected President of the United States. Ruth went to Yale and built a career as an engineer, but was only able to do so because she abandoned a baby boy when she was a teenager. Before she can start a family with her husband, Ruth must return to her blue-collar hometown of Indiana — which looks a lot like Gary — to find out what happened to her son.

by Jonathan Franzen

Right now, it could hardly be less fashionable to publish a novel about a middle-aged, middle-class pastor having a midlife crisis at a mainline Protestant church in a mid-century Midwestern suburb. Franzen was born in Western Springs, the model for New Prospect, Illinois, where Russ Hildebrandt, 47, is associate pastor of the First Reformed Church. Too old to lead divine spell/jesus christ A superstar-inspired youth group too young to take over from the senior pastor who is buzzing about Reinhold Neibuhr, they try to get a taste for life again by wooing a young widow.

by Toya Wolfe

In 1999, the Robert Taylor Homes collapsed, tower by tower. As the Chicago Housing Authority tears down plans, 12-year-old Fe Fe Stevens and her friends are mostly preoccupied with school, church and skipping rope. The demolition around the girls is perhaps a metaphor for the end of childhood. Fe Fe’s brother joins a gang, then goes to jail. One of her friends becomes pregnant. Fe Fe moves to Hyde Park, then to California, but returns to visit the girl who never left the South Side. Wolfe grew up in the Taylor Homes before earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College.

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