From Barack Obama’s candid memoir to Maggie O’Farrell’s Shakespearean dream: the clear-eyed nonfiction and transporting novels that helped us through an unprecedented year

By Kim Hubbard
Updated December 31, 2020 02:30 PM
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Credit: Peter Ardito

In a year like no other, books continued to provide us with an escape from the harsh realities of the world — even if the realities depicted weren’t always sunny. Here, PEOPLE picks the top 10 reads of the year, everything from presidential reflections and tales of friendship to stories about well-kept secrets. Looking for more great escapes? Read about PEOPLE's best in movies, TV and music in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

1. Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

One Colorado family, 12 children, six of them diagnosed with schizophrenia: Take that, Job. In Kolker’s hands, the Galvins’ story — interwoven with the science their genes helped advance — is a stunning testament to human resilience.

Buy It! Hidden Valley Road, $29.95; amazon.com

2. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Credit: Knopf

In prose so sensuous you can almost smell the River Thames, O’Farrell reimagines a defining event of Shakespeare’s life: the death of his 11-year-old son Hamnet (sounds like ...), perhaps from the bubonic plague. A captivating achievement.

Buy It! Hamnet, $26.95; amazon.com

3. A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Showcasing his signature blend of sober self-scrutiny and laid-back charm, the first volume of the former President’s memoirs is illuminating on many levels. Most revealing: his thoughts on family — and the toll the office took on his marriage.

Buy It! A Promised Land, $24; amazon.com

4. What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

A dying friend asks the narrator to see her through her last weeks, a request that becomes the backdrop for musings on aging, climate change and the underrated gift of attention. It could be grim, but it’s transporting.

Buy It! What Are You Going Through, $26; amazon.com

5. Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford

Sexually assaulted as a teen at an elite New Hampshire boarding school, the author buried the trauma and tried to live her life. Decades later other incidents at the school prompted this brave, searing and unputdownable reckoning.

Buy It! Notes on a Silencing, $28; amazon.com

6. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

If you think rigid caste systems exist only in India, think again. Combining sociological analysis and individual stories, Pulitzer winner Wilkerson paints a revelatory picture of the hidden power hierarchies that shape — and stunt — American lives. 

Buy It! Caste, $32; amazon.com

7. Writers & Lovers by Lily King

A young waitress mourning her mother’s death struggles to find her path as a writer while juggling two very different men. In the hellscape that was 2020, this thoughtful literary novel felt as delightfully escapist as a beach book.

Buy It! Writers & Lovers, $27; amazon.com

8. Monogamy by Sue Miller

When the larger-than-life husband she adores dies suddenly, middle- aged Annie is set adrift. Then she learns he wasn’t quite the man she thought he was. Filled with insights into the comforts and compromises of enduring marriages.

Buy It! Monogamy, $28.99; amazon.com

9. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Together, twins Stella and Desiree leave the small Black community they feel stifled by. Then one cuts off her past — and her sister — to pass as white. Their choices reverberate across generations in this affecting story of race and identity.

Buy It! The Vanishing Half, $27; amazon.com

10. The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

After Giovanna’s father says she is turning ugly like his estranged, less cultured sister, she sets off to meet the woman, and her life is upended. Another spellbinding coming-of-age tale from a master.

Buy It! The Lying Life of Adults, $26; amazon.com