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10-4-2020 The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Over 500 Pages | Literary Hub

L I T E R A R Y H U B

e 50 Best Contemporary
Novels Over 500 Pages
Long Books, Worth Your Time

By Emily Temple April 9, 2020

 

Personally, I nd solace in long novels. e good ones always seem to create space
for the reader: space to sink and settle, and time to really learn what you’re dealing
with, both in terms of character and in terms of author. You have to build
something, reading a really long book. It’s almost a collaborative experience. So if
you’re looking for a long-term relationship with a book right now, you couldn’t do
much better than the books below.

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For my sanity, I limited this list to contemporary novels, which here I am de ning
as being published in the last 50 years—I gure, you’ve already made your own
decisions about whether to read Middlemarch and Ulysses and e Lord of the Rings,
you know? You know.

Here are the rules: I only counted single volumes (it’s ne for them to be part of a
series, but they have to meet the size requirements on their own), published in
English since 1970. Writers only get one spot on the list. Page counts may vary over
editions. And as ever, no list is de nitive, “best” is an imaginary term, and I had to
leave a lot of good books o , so feel free to add your own favorites in the comments
section.

Richard Powers, e Overstory (512 pages)

Strap in for a 512-page book about trees. But of course it’s really about humanity—
all literature is—and it’s weirdly engrossing. ough it lags a bit at the end when it
succumbs to polemic, for the most part, Powers manages to entertain, inform, and
inspire action in the most high pro le work of climate ction yet.

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N. K. Jemisin, e Fifth Season (512 pages)

is is the most important work of speculative ction written in the last ten years.
Luckily, it’s the rst in a trilogy (though the other two stop just short of making the
page count for this list).

Umberto Eco, e Name of the Rose (512 pages)

A murder mystery concerning a labyrinthine library, and probably the only


bestselling novel to be based on semiotics.

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Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (512 pages)

is four-generational saga of one Korean family who must give up their home for
Japan is an absolutely captivating read. “History has failed us, but no matter.”

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (528 pages)

Mitchell’s masterpiece is a boon for the easily distracted or quickly bored—after all,
this is six novels in one, each with a markedly di erent style and tone, each set in a
di erent time period. Argue about the connections between them all you like, but
for sheer delight, you could hardly do any better than this epic novel.

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Tana French, e Witch Elm (528 pages)

It’s not my favorite of French’s novels (that would be e Likeness, obviously, I’m not
a crazy person), but it’s the only one that tips over the 500-page mark, and honestly,
even my third favorite French ranks above most other people’s books. e Witch
Elm is also perhaps her most fully realized, investigating not just a murder but
privilege and society and the notion of memory—or sanity—itself. It’s very good.

Margaret Atwood, e Robber Bride (528 pages)

Everyone puts e Blind Assassin on lists like this, and I get it, but personally I have
a soft spot for Atwood’s delicious and extremely 90s retelling of e Robber
Bridegroom story, in no small part due to the glorious villain (hero?) that is Zenia.

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Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (531 pages)

Can’t argue with those receipts—and honestly, despite my supposed literary


snobbery, I don’t want to. Sure, it’s a little obvious (blind French girl, orphaned
German boy, WWII) but man, it works. e writing is lovely too.

John Crowley, Little, Big (538 pages)

Featuring one of the best houses in all of literature, magical or otherwise.

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Je rey Eugenides, Middlesex (544 pages)

A complex and engaging multi-generational family novel that is also one of the few
to focus on an intersex character and also one of the best books ever written about
Detroit.

Helen DeWitt, e Last Samurai (548 pages)

If you love language, or novels that play with form and function, this is the rst
book on this list you should read. It is also the best novel—and maybe the only
novel you need ever read, because it’s just going to spoil you—about a precocious
child.

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A. S. Byatt, Possession (555 pages)

Everyone’s favorite novel of academics (and dead poets) in love.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (559 pages)

Now that the trilogy is complete, you have no reason not to start Mantel’s two-time
(soon to be three-time, let’s not kid ourselves) Booker Prize winning trilogy about
omas Cromwell, do you?

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Alexander Chee, e Queen of the Night (573 pages)

Chee’s opulent romp is narrated by a star of the Paris Opera—with, of course, a


complicated past. e perfect novel to whisk you away for hours on end.

Donna Tartt, e Secret History (576 pages)

I never remember how long e Secret History actually is—it is slim and sharp in my
mind. But this beloved narrative of bacchanal, murder, friendship, and most of all,
beauty is an enveloping, involving read, from its perfect prologue to its disastrous
end.

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Isabella Hammad, e Parisian (576 pages)

Hammad’s dazzling debut novel concerns a young Palestinian dreamer who leaves
home in 1914 to study at the Sorbonne—but when he returns, it is to a country in
upheaval. A historical novel that is also a political novel that is also a love story, and
every page a vibrant pleasure to read.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (588 pages)

is love story-cum-immigration story, tracking two Nigerian lovers as they leave


their country—one for the US, one for London—and try to nd their way back
together, is a chummy, clear-eyed delight for every one of its 588 pages.

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Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (596 pages)

Like Dickens, but queer and feminist. Run, don’t walk.

Haruki Murakami, e Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (607 pages)

If you grew up in the 90s, there’s a good chance that this was the rst book to truly
blow your mind.

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Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (624 pages)

e celebrated Vietnam novel of a celebrated literary hero.

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (632 pages)

e story of a nation and the story of a boy—well, two boys—converge in Rushdie’s


richly embroidered masterpiece of magical realism.

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Neil Gaiman, American Gods (635 pages)

A surreal, sometimes disturbing, genre-bending road trip novel featuring forgotten


gods, lost souls, and dark revelations. Just what you want in a fantasy novel,
especially when you’re stuck at home.

Michael Chabon, e Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (639 pages)

Chabon’s magnum opus is a gloriously fun, wham-pow novel of heroes, friendship,


magic, the Golden Age of Comics, and sure, okay, Hitler. But I promise that this is
a book that will make you feel good, while also challenging you.

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Ken Liu, e Grace of Kings (640 pages)

We know Liu can do small—his story “ e Paper Menagerie” was the rst piece of
ction to win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award at the same
time—but he can also do big. His debut novel, the rst in a series, reinvigorates the
epic fantasy genre with “silkpunk” vibes.

Jonathan Franzen, e Corrections (653 pages)

Don’t @ me, okay?

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Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (676 pages)

A very funny novel about a bunch of kids at a boarding school in Dublin, which
begins when Skippy, well, dies. Mysteriously. During a donut-eating contest. I
know.

Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity (678 pages)

A funny, brash, messy and totally necessary postmodern novel about a public
defender—the son of Colombian immigrants—who at the start of the book has
never lost a case, and who stumbles into the “perfect” crime. Filled to the brim with
asides and musings and boxing and pretty much everything that might constitute a
life.

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Ian Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost (691 pages)

is wonderful historical—and philosophical—mystery novel set in 17th century


Oxford is told from four competing points of view, each more unreliable than the
next.

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (704 pages)

An ambitious, symphonic, and brilliant novel that begins with the violent unrest in
1976 Jamaica, including the attempted assassination of Bob Marley days before the
concert that was supposed to bring everyone together, and unspools through the 80s
and 90s in both Jamaica and New York.

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Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (704 pages)

You’d expect that having to live through multiple versions of the same woman’s life
—only in (almost) each, she evades death and lives a bit longer—would get a little
boring, but it’s actually fascinating, even gripping, especially when she gures out
what’s going on and sets o to kill Hitler. Maybe not the best novel to read in 2020,
though, considering how many tries it takes her to avoid dying from the Spanish u.

Tom Wolfe, e Bon re of the Vanities (704 pages)

I mean, would you expect the quintessential novel of New York in the 80s to be
anything other than ridiculously large and gilded and poisonous as all hell?

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Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (720 pages)

is may be the most divisive novel on the list—some people are obsessed with
Yanagihara’s heartbreaking rendering of a group of young men and their friendship
through the years (just the thought of it makes them cry), and others nd it puerile
and ridiculous. If you have a tolerance for the elaborate sentence (and for seriously
upsetting depictions of abuse and self-harm), and what they used to call “hysterical
realism,” you may nd yourself in the former camp.

Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale (748 pages)

An extraordinary highbrow fantasy and by far the best book to read in New York
City in the winter.

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William Gaddis, J R (752 pages)

752 pages, and they’re pretty much all dialogue, with no tags to even tell you who is
talking. is sounds like hell but actually it is the weirdest, most hypnotic drug,
once you just give in to it.

Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (768 pages)

Silko’s grand, shimmering, complexly woven classic is a retelling of America and a


reimagining of its future. We may not like what we see, but that’s why we should see
it.

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omas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (773 pages)

Pynchon lives for longform, but Mason & Dixon is the most fun.

Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (801 pages)

One of the strangest and best science ction novels you will ever read.

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Ken Follett, e Pillars of the Earth (806 pages)

A historical novel so beloved that I’d get multiple disgruntled emails if I didn’t
include it here.

Stephen King, e Stand (823 pages)

By my count, Stephen King has published 23 novels that are longer than 500 pages
—for a very good time, read this essay by Kaitlyn Ti any about spending a summer
reading It—but considering the current moment, I have chosen to include his
pandemic masterpiece above the rest.

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Don DeLillo, Underworld (827 pages)

With apologies to White Noise truthers, this sprawling take on American existence is
DeLillo’s nest achievement.

Eleanor Catton, e Luminaries (849 pages)

Even if you don’t know anything about astrology, if you have the time, it’s worth
cracking into Catton’s Booker Prize-winning second novel, set in the New Zealand
prospecting town of Hokitika, and featuring a whole host of absorbing, strange, and
semi-moral characters, who are trying to gure out what really happened one fateful
night (it involves murder, of course, and gold, and sex). For those seeking full
absorption—and transportation.

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Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (864 pages)

Like Dickens, but Gothic—and Magic. Again, for you, the running.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (864 pages)

e Great American Cowboy Novel.

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Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (912 pages)

Bolaño’s epic, ve-part nal novel is massive in scope, though centered on and
forever circling the violent and ctional city of Santa Teresa, where hundreds of
women have been murdered. Many people will tell you how good (and di cult) this
novel is; for this reader, the best part is its strange quality of being found instead of
told; that is, it feels like a myth, or a planet you’re seeing through a telescope.
Certainly a classic of modern literature.

Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games (916 pages)

A big, bustling, richly textured gangster novel set in Mumbai.

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Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport (1,040 pages)

1,040 pages . . . in one sentence. Radical and readable and truly awesome in every
sense of the word.

David Foster Wallace, In nite Jest (1,088 pages)

Wallace is certainly not hero worship material, that much is clear—but his most
famous work is still an imperfect, impossibly good novel that gets more relevant
every day.

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Peter Nadas, tr. Imre Goldstein, Parallel Stories (1,152 pages)

A novel this long about 50 years of Hungarian history doesn’t sound that good, but
this is history zoomed all the way in, in the best way: the history of passing
cigarettes, of standing in bread lines, of stolen kisses. It is also, as Francine Prose put
it, the most “dense, lthy, brilliant” history you’ll ever read.

Joseph McElroy, Women and Men (1,192 pages)

As others have pointed out, this massive, absurdly complex postmodern novel,
which weighed four pounds in hardcover, should sit in our mental bookshelves next
to Ulysses and e Recognitions, but it is often, oddly, forgotten.

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Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (1,488 pages)

e longest novel on this list is both a family story and a political one—but really
shows how hard it can be to nd the right guy for your intellectual daughter.

Emily Temple

Emily Temple is a senior editor at Lit Hub. Her rst novel, The Lightness, will be published by William
Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can preorder it here.

 https://www.emilytemple.net/

 THE WEST IN PIECES: ON THE REIMAGINED


GRAMMAR(S) OF C. PAM ZHANG
MOTHERLOSS, THAT THING YOU CANNOT
ESCAPE 

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