Eight of the best books set in US cities

The US is a chequerboard of human stories, its cities filled with tales of triumph, struggle, debauchery, decadence and no end of human emotion. From New York to New Orleans, here’s our pick of the most evocative reads set within urban America.

By Stephanie Cavagnaro
Published 9 Feb 2023, 09:53 GMT
Books set in US cities

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Heartburn by Nora Ephron, Jazz by Toni Morrison.

National Geographic Traveller UK

1. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989)

Mother-daughter relationships unfurl over a weekly mahjong game in San Francisco. This postmodern novel is strung together as a series of short stories about four Chinese mothers and their US-born daughters. As the mothers play, they recount their former lives in China, unified in grief and possibility. The setting, the San Francisco Bay Area, reflects this jarring tug between old and new: glinting skyscrapers tower over small Chinatown shops. Tan draws on personal experience as a first-generation immigrant to California, and her prose sweeps across the city, from Chinatown to Ashbury Heights and North Beach. These pages are an earnest exploration of heritage, diasporic identity and home.

2. Heartburn by Nora Ephron (1983)

Hilarious and heartbreaking, this roman à clef of the public breakdown of Nora Ephron’s marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein unfolds against the backdrop of the US capital. Narrator Rachel Samstat is a food writer who has moved to Washington, DC to support her husband’s career as a political journalist. She’s pregnant with their second child when she discovers he’s having an affair with Thelma Rice, the wife of a British ambassador. It’s wryly written and, unusually, sprinkled with recipes throughout (pot roast, bacon hash, key lime pie) that buoy Rachel through her grief and eventual freedom in New York.

3. The Outsiders by SE Hinton (1967)

It’s tough being a teenager in Tulsa’s gangland. There’s constant conflict between the wealthy westside Socs (‘socials’) and Greasers from the working-class east. Written by 15-year-old Hinton as a Tulsa high-school student, this coming-of-age novel is narrated by Ponyboy Curtis, a young Greaser. He grapples to understand his place in a society where the trajectory of life can be determined by growing up on the wrong side of town. When Ponyboy is involved in a stabbing, he has to confront death’s breakdown of geographical and social divisions. Fans of the novel can visit The Outsiders House Museum, which opened in 2019 to preserve the house and memorabilia used in the 1983 film adaption by Francis Ford Coppola.

4. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947)

Open a window onto New Orleans’ rollicking French Quarter. This Pulitzer Prize-winning play is set entirely in a two-bedroom apartment on the street of Elysian Fields in the late 1940s. Flirtatious Blanche DuBois leaves her small town and moves in with her sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley, spelling conflict for the troubled couple. New Orleans, with its ‘raffish charm’, imposes on the characters from outside: clattering trains, fighting neighbours, yowling cats. Accustomed to a quiet, homogenous life, Blanche is at odds with the crowded, cosmopolitan city. Her struggle spotlights the discordance between the rural Old South and the industrial new. Tennessee Williams penned the play while living in New Orleans, finding it a bohemia to his home state of Mississippi.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber.

Photograph by National Geographic Traveller UK

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1971)

These exhilarating pages tear open the wild heart of Sin City. Based on Thompson’s gonzo trips to Vegas for Rolling Stone, this fictionalised account follows journalist Raoul Duke and his lawyer as they’re sent to cover a motorcycle race for a magazine. They’re sidetracked by drugs, destruction and debauchery; the pair hallucinate, destroy their red convertible, trash their hotel room, run up room service tabs and flee before settling them. The free-wheeling Nevada city is the ideal setting for a story that captures the zeitgeist at the end of the hippie era. It’s a meditation on the countercultural movement of the 1960s and a wry commentary on the decline of the American Dream.

6. Jazz by Toni Morrison (1992)

Murder seems incongruous amid the hope in 1920s Harlem. A sanctuary for African-American migrants from the south, the neighbourhood was also buzzing with the cultural and political revival of the Harlem Renaissance: “A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things,” muses the narrator. Nobel Prize-winning Morrison examines the struggles and eventual redemption of married couple Joe and Violet Trace. When Joe has an affair and kills his young lover, Harlem acts as a character at odds with the couple’s despair. Like jazz music itself, the book isn’t linear, and Morrison’s prose becomes a stage for improvisation. It’s a celebration of the resilience of human beings.

7. Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (2019)

Giving voice to the silenced American West, this award-winning debut collection includes 11 short stories about working-class Latina women of Indigenous ancestry, including a schoolgirl and a sex worker. It’s set among the steel skyscrapers and snow-capped mountains of Fajardo-Anstine’s hometown of Denver, where the novel’s marginalised characters struggle with male violence, difficult family dynamics and the gentrification of their ancestral homelands. Exploring femininity, belonging and what it means to exist at the margins, this collection digs into the deep roots of the Indigenous experience in Colorado.

8. Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber (2011)

Follow troubled teen runaway Felice Muir across the sun-soaked streets of pastel-toned Miami. At only 13, Felice permanently leaves home to punish herself for a past transgression and spends five years struggling on the seedy streets of Miami Beach in search of drugs, food and shelter. Abu-Jaber paints atmospheric descriptions of the coastal city, which is just south of her home in Fort Lauderdale. As Hurricane Katrina twists violently towards Florida and Felice turns 18, the young girl is forced to confront the crack forming between her cataclysmic past and unwritten future.

Published in the US Cities 2023 guide, distributed with the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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