If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. That’s right, we’re talking about New York City. It’s a metropolis that has inspired countless artists, and Jill Santopolo is one of them. Santopolo’s new novel, More Than Words is set in the Big Apple, and follows the story of a woman trying to forge her own path in the city that never sleeps. Here, Santopolo shares the books set in NYC that she loves the most.
There are certain things I can’t get enough of, and one of those things is reading books set in New York City. From the time I was a kid and read and reread Harriet the Spy and New York, New York!: The Baby-Sitter’s Club Super Special #6 to today, it’s a through line in so many of the stories I’m drawn to. And I credit some of the New York City books for my desire to live here and my eventual move here just after high school. Now that I’ve been living in Manhattan for more than two decades, I feel proud to be a New Yorker, proud to set my own books in New York City, and even prouder to be able to recommend these books for people who want to ensconce themselves in the Big Apple, with all of its magic (and some of its misery, too).
Jazz by Toni Morrison
There are lines in Jazz that make me catch my breath because they hit me in a way that makes me want to say: “Yes. Yes, that’s right. That’s exactly it.” One of those lines is about New York City. “A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things.” Yes! It does! And there is so much more about New York City in here that feels just as true today as it did in the 1920s, when the book is set. Toni Morrison captures the feeling of jazz music itself, with characters using different styles in their solo stories to share their own experiences and emotions. It’s simply beautiful.
While this is the collection that inspired the HBO series (which my friends and I loved so much we used to have watch parties every week), this feels grittier than the show. There is something raw about the stories, and something almost voyeuristic in getting to experience the world of wealthy, successful, high-class New Yorkers who go to sex clubs on a whim or have architects who work on their Hamptons houses or date toxic bachelors. In this book, Candace Bushnell makes you feel like you’re getting a peek into the New York City of legend—and that those legends are 100% real.
People have called this novel Sex and the City before Sex and the City, and I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. About five young women trying to make their way in New York City in the 1950s—from their romantic relationships to their career goals to their thoughts about it all—it really shows what it feels like to be young and ambitious in a city full of opportunities and choices. I read this when I was in my 20s, living a life not too dissimilar to the women in the book, even though it was a full five decades later.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
This novel has been a favorite of mine ever since I was 10 years old—I read it every summer until I graduated college. The way Betty Smith writes about New York City in the early 1900s made me nostalgic for a time I’d never lived in, and made me look for the echoes of that old New York in today’s city—the fire escapes, the public libraries, the street fairs, the Christmas tree sellers. Whenever they set up their stands on the city sidewalks, I think of Francie and Neeley Nolan and the night they brought home a Christmas tree so big they could barely carry it. The novel shows that while the city isn’t always beautiful, it does always contain hope.
This is a completely engrossing, powerful novel about four sisters navigating their lives in between two worlds—the world of the Dominican Republic, where they were born, and of New York City, where they arrived with their parents in the 1960s. The novel unfolds in reverse chronological order, starting in the 1980s and ending in the 1950s, going from the DR to NYC and back again. Part II shows both the wild and wonderful aspects of New York City, as well as the ugliness that exists, especially for those who have just immigrated here. It’s truly a modern classic, and a story that resonates just as strongly today as it did when it was written.
One of the things I love most about New York City is the food scene—the breadth of it, the variety of it, and the few times a year I get treated (or treat myself) to one of the city’s fanciest, most famous eating establishments. This book takes you into that world of high-end restaurants and gives you a peek at what it’s like to work and to live in its orbit. It’s also a wonderful story about growing up, making choices, and figuring out who you are and how you want to exist in the world.
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
In this book, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor paints a picture of New York City that could have only been created by someone who loves it deeply. The sights, the sounds, and the details are drawn with such care that it’s impossible not to feel transported by her words and her story. I can, years after first reading this memoir, still picture street corners she described and neighborhoods she depicted. This book contains an incredibly inspirational story and empowering message, but it also feels like a bit of a love letter to the Big Apple.
If you’re looking for something new to read set in New York City, this book, out at the end of February, is not one to miss. It’s a tense and tightly plotted mystery about what happened to Edie, a party girl just out of college and living in a Brooklyn loft with her friends in 2009. It captures a feeling of youth and freedom and possibility that seems quintessentially New York, but also the dark side of that youth and freedom and possibility, which is also unique to the city. It kept me flipping pages so intensely that I actually missed my stop on the subway.
Jill Santopolo is the author of the nationally and internationally bestselling novel The Light We Lost, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, as well as the Alec Flint Mysteries, the Sparkle Spa series, and the Follow Your Heart books. She holds a BA in English Literature from Columbia University, an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a certificate in Intellectual Property Law from NYU.