Critics' choice: Fiction

The best of 2013

1. Tenth of December

by George Saunders (Random House, $26)

George Saunders has just cemented his standing as “the quintessential writer of our time,” said Ellen Akins in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. His short stories “take the empty language of so much of our daily discourse,” from business jargon to self-help bromides, and show us how it’s capable of being used to express the fullness of our souls. In the collection’s 10 stories, this arch observer plunges us into the inner monologues of a host of characters: some despairing, some self-centered, but all inescapably human. “The book has a sneaky coherence,” said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. Whether we’re reading about a man who’s purchased immigrants to serve as lawn ornaments or about a prisoner who is fed mood-altering pills, the author wants us to see each character struggling to transcend personal limitations. “At its best,” the book achieves “a vivid synergy between the ridiculous culture we have built for ourselves and the heartbreak and longing of our inner lives.”

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A dissent: Too many of Saunders’s men speak in the same voice: “slightly too literal” and “slightly childish,” said David Wolf in The Observer (U.K.).

2. The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, $30)

Eleven years after her previous novel, Donna Tartt returned with a book that “pulls together all her remarkable story-telling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole,” said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. When 13-year-old Theo Decker survives a terrorist bombing at a museum and smuggles out a priceless Dutch painting, he launches a thoroughly Dickensian tale that’s part thriller, part bildungsroman, and will remind many of “the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading.” Theo’s life caroms from a tony Park Avenue apartment to a crowded antiques shop to a bleak Las Vegas subdivision. Yet because he lost his mother in the bombing, “loneliness is the emotional constant,” even as he turns to a life of crime, said Maureen Corrigan in I’ve always liked Tartt, but “I’ve been waiting for a novel like this since I first read David Copperfield.”

A dissent: “The novel has too many disparate parts to be a genuine treasure,” said Clark Collis in Entertainment Weekly.

3. The Flamethrowers

by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, $27)

Rachel Kushner’s second novel “plays with ideas the way someone might juggle Molotov cocktails,” said Mindy Farabee in the San Francisco Chronicle. Reno, a 22-year-old artist and motorcycle racer, stars in this globe-spanning zip through the tumult of the 1970s, and her bid to carve herself a place in a couple of very macho realms “roils with uneasy questions about freedom, power, and identity.” Soon after breaking a land-speed world record in Utah, Reno immerses herself in New York’s art world, then follows a lover to Italy and falls in with a group of anarchists. The entire story “has all the momentum of Reno on her motorcycle, but nothing here passes in a blur,” said Kathryn Schulz in New York magazine. Kushner possesses “astonishing observational powers,” and no detour she takes feels superfluous. “She seems to work with a muse and a nail gun, so surprisingly yet forcefully do her sentences pin reality to the page.”

A dissent: “The coherence of the writing” slips slightly when the plot picks up speed, said James Wood in The New Yorker.

4. Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur, $28)

As you read this “dazzling,” time-warping book, your own life will look different, said Mary Ann Gwinn in The Seattle Times. Kate Atkinson has created a heroine named Ursula who lives life again and again, and the conceit allows the book to kill off Ursula in countless ways while deepening the reader’s sense that every moment we get on this planet is precious. Atkinson has “an ever-so-dry sense of humor” that keeps sentimentality at bay, and she shows “a knack for testing her characters’ brains and hearts.” Life After Life proves to be “far more than a stunt,” said Laura Miller in As Ursula accumulates dim memories of previous experiences, she works to take control of her fate, but shows us that there’s actually no way to “get it right,” let alone achieve life’s full array of potentialities. Ultimately, we recognize that the unfurling of any life closes off many paths, and the realization “gives even the most modest human story a kind of grandeur.”

A dissent: Ursula seems always to be dying abruptly “whenever she threatens to develop as a character,” said Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal.

5. The Son

by Philipp Meyer (Ecco, $28)

With only his second novel, Philipp Meyer delivered “a Texas epic that can stand alongside classics by Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy,” said Yvonne Zipp in A family saga that spans four generations, The Son opens with high drama, as 13-year-old Eli McCullough is kidnapped and orphaned during an 1849 Comanche raid. Eli will blossom into a Comanche warrior, then a Texas Ranger who builds a cattle and oil empire, but his descendants’ stories share the stage, and Meyer cuts “masterfully” across eras from the start. When Eli’s son agonizes over the racism that helped build the family fortune, and Eli’s great-granddaughter battles through sexism to take control of the business, their stories feel nearly as compelling as Eli’s, said Ken Tucker in The Son is a book of ideas, but it’s also a book “packed with thrilling escapes and rescues, daring love affairs, and comic moments that slide without warning into chilling horrors.”

A dissent: All 600 pages of The Son add up to little more than “a none-too-subtle bashing of Texas history, myths, and legends,” said Clay Reynolds in The Dallas Morning News.

How the books were chosen

Our rankings were created by weighting end-of-year recommendations published by A.V. Club,,, Entertainment Weekly, The Kansas City Star, theMinneapolis Star Tribune, Newsday, New York magazine, The New York Times, O magazine,, Time, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal,and The Washington Post.

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