24+ Page-Turner Literary Books You Can’t Put Down

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If you’re looking for a page-turner literary novel to sink your teeth into, look no further than these books you can’t put down. This reading list is filled with some of the best books that will keep you captivated until the very end.

These deep, character-driven, literary fiction novels are so compelling that people can’t stop reading them, and many of them are among my favorite books. Add these to your to-read list and prepare to be swept away by these gripping books that will keep you reading.

Finding the Perfect Page-Turner for You

This literary fiction list of books you can’t put down is a continuation of the cross-genre list 27 Page-Turner Books to Start Your Reading Habit.

With so many distractions and busier lives, it’s easy to fall out of the reading habit, and figuring out how to pick it up again can be a struggle–especially if you don’t start with the right books.

Woman reading Sugar Birds

The “right books” aren’t the books that anyone says you *should* be reading.

The right books are the page-turners that keep you riveted and picking up the book again and again.

They’re the books you don’t want to put down, and they’re the ones that keep you searching for that next great read.

The 27 books on my previous list cover nine different genres or types of books, with three books in each category. Narrowing it down to just three from each, though, wasn’t easy.

This list includes even more literary books you can’t put down. These are some of the best page-turners I’ve read that also offer literary depth and immersive stories.

Literary fiction can sometimes get a bad rap for being too highbrow, pretentious, or difficult. It’s true that some literary novels won’t appeal to everyone, and they can sometimes be more difficult to read than a lighter novel.

But the depth and character development offered by great literary fiction novels make them some of the most rewarding books to spend time with. You’ll find that some of these cross genres or toe the literary line, making them accessible to any reader.

When you’re in the mood for a literary read, turn to one of these great books and enjoy getting lost in an immersive story.

The Best Page-Turner Literary Books You Can’t Put Down

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, a must-read historical fiction novel

Rules of Civility

Author: Amor Towles
Publish Date: June 26, 2012
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Rules of Civility is a look at 1930s New York high society through the eyes of Katey Kontent, an independent 20-something who, with her friend Evelyn, finds her way into those hallowed circles by way of a chance meeting with Tinker Grey at a jazz bar. Circumstances keep Katey on the guest list over the course of a year, as she works as a secretary by day and navigates the world of the city’s wealthiest families by night. A great read about 1930s glitz and glamour.

Read if you like:

  • Books about high society
  • Wealthy people behaving badly
  • Glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age.

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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

The Death of Vivek Oji

Author: Awaeke Emezi
Publish Date: 2020
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

In a Nigerian town, a mother opens the door and finds the body of her son. As she grieves his death, she tries to understand the person Vivek was and find out how he was killed. A gentle soul, Vivek struggled with identity and finding a place in the world.

Told from multiple perspectives, the story reconstructs the events leading to Vivek’s death and the heartbreaking struggle for self-acceptance in a world that is determined to deny it.

Read if you like:

  • Stories about identity
  • Books about LGBTQ issues and relationships
  • Mysteries unraveled through multiple perspectives.

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Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, a multi-generational book about family drama

Commonwealth

Author: Ann Patchett
Publish Date: September 13, 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

An early betrayal reverberates through the decades, in this story of flawed families who fail one another but keep trying and trusting in spite of the failures. Where you would expect broken, bitter relationships, Patchett shows the enduring power of loyalty, love, and forgiveness. This is not an action-packed novel, but one where the subtle emotional tensions will resonate; you’ll be completely immersed.

Read if you like:

  • Books about family drama
  • Relationships playing out over decades
  • Stories of enduring love and forgiveness.

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The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

The Gunners

Author: Rebecca Kauffman
Publish Date: March 20, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

Mikey Callahan is the only one of six childhood friends to remain in their hometown, aside from the long-estranged Sally, who has died by suicide in adulthood. The remaining friends trickle into town for the funeral, reconnect, and confess old and new secrets.

As long-held misunderstandings are remedied, the friends realize that they may not have known each other as well as they thought–but also that this unknowing is a constant in relationships, and they can endure anyway. While not everything is resolved–as it almost never is in the case of suicide–this is a lovely book about the power of friendship, forgiveness, and acceptance.

Read if you like:

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a big thick book worth reading

Americanah

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publish Date: March 20, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

After leaving a Nigeria under military rule, Ifemelu and Obinze plan to move to the United States to start a new life. But 9/11 keeps Obinze from joining Ifemelu, and over 15 years they each seek their own identities in very different ways.

Obinze, meanwhile, lives a life in dangerous limbo in London, where he is undocumented. When they finally come together, they must determine if what they’ve learned about themselves and the world can allow them to be together in a new Nigeria.

Read if you like:

  • Books about race and identity
  • Strong female characters
  • Stories set in multiple countries.

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Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Peace Like a River

Author: Leif Enger
Publish Date: August 7, 2002
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Mysteries & Thrillers

When Reuben’s brother Davy flees after an encounter that ends with him as the prime suspect in a murder, 11-year-old Reuben, his poetic sister Swede, and his father follow him into the unforgiving Badlands. While the plot centers on the family’s search for Davy, the atmospheric writing touches on poetry, faith, and miracles–for which Reuben’s father seems to be a conduit. This book manages to be both tragic and hopeful, and Enger is a writer whose prose is worth savoring.

Read if you like:

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Body & Soul by Frank Conroy, a long book worth reading

Body & Soul

Author: Frank Conroy
Publish Date: 1998
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Body & Soul begins as the coming-of-age story of Claude Rawlings, a piano prodigy discovered by chance as a young boy on his lonely wanderings through New York. Left largely to himself while his mother drives a taxi, Claude picks out tunes on a piano and befriends the owner of a music store. As he grows, his genius propels him to fame and riches–and eventually into a crisis of creativity and obsession common with brilliant artists. Sweeping, completely immersive, and one of my favorite books.

Read if you like:

  • Books about characters moving from poverty to fame
  • Books about music and artists
  • Stories told over decades.

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Waiting for Eden by Elliott Ackerman

Waiting for Eden

Author: Elliot Ackerman
Publish Date: 2018
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

Waiting for Eden is a short, intense novel that brings us into the mind of Eden, the most wounded soldier ever to survive–he was both injured and kept alive by the newest technologies. For three years, Eden has been holding onto life while his wife, Mary, keeps vigil in his hospital room. Meanwhile, his friend and fellow soldier who died watches–and waits.

As Eden battles fears and struggles to find order in his own mind and to communicate his wishes, his wife struggles as well–with her sense of loyalty, her exhaustion, and her guilt.

Eden’s friend narrates and guides us between the past and present, raising difficult questions of how past wrongs affect our present decisions, and who decides what makes a life worth living. Beautifully written and emotionally charged, this is not a light read–but it is a powerful one.

Read if you like:

  • Emotionally charged, gut-wrenching books
  • Short books that pack a punch
  • Personal stories of the impact of world events.

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The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin, a novel about family drama and relationships

The Last Romantics

Author: Tara Conklin
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

Much of The Last Romantics hinges on the moments that define four siblings in childhood. Together, Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona have the Pause. Following their father’s early death, their mother’s years-long retreat defined their relationships, cementing a lifelong closeness, sense of responsibility, and knowing of one another. But it’s the unknown traumas and struggles that send each on their own paths into adulthood, paths that the others don’t understand–though they feel their connections should make understanding a given.

Told over decades, The Last Romantics is a beautiful look at complicated familial relationships, examining the nature of love, commitment, and the strength of those bonds even as what we know changes. Read my full review.

Read if you like:

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Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Publish Date: 2013
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

In this searing coming-of-age novel set during the 1980s AIDS crisis, a young teen mourns her uncle. Her grief is enhanced by the realization that the world wants to deny his existence, and that of the other young men suffering and dying. As she mourns, she finds unexpected comfort in a friend he left behind.

Read if you like:

  • Fiction set in the 1980s
  • LGBTQ issues and relationships
  • Unexpected friendships.

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Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee

Author: Chris Cleave
Publish Date: 2013
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

The story of the connection between Little Bee, a young Nigerian woman, and Sarah, an English wife and mother, unfolds slowly, alternating between their perspectives. Little Bee’s parts shine with lovely language and humorous insights, while Sarah’s can sometimes fall a little flat, but I feel like this is part of the contrast of their experiences and how they respond. An unputdownable read that brings the horrors, fears, and hopes of asylum seekers to the doorstep.

Read if you like:

  • Books related to immigration and asylum
  • Stories of cultures colliding
  • Unexpectedly funny prose.

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere

Author: Celeste Ng
Publish Date: 2013
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

The community of Shaker Heights is meticulously planned and picture-perfect, and the Richardson family is much the same. When their new tenants–mysterious, free-spirited artist Mia and her daughter, Pearl–move into town, the four Richardson children are enamored of both, and Pearl of them.

Complications arise when the two mothers, Elena and Mia, find themselves on opposite sides of an adoption case. Elena suspects Mia is not all that she seems and starts digging into her past, rocking the worlds of Mia and Pearl and her own children. Well-written and perfect for anyone looking for a simmering, emotional read.

Read if you like:

  • Suburban drama
  • Complicated family relationships
  • Immigration and adoption issues.

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House

Author: Ann Patchett
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

Set at the end of World War II and told over five decades, this is the story of a brother, Danny, and sister, Maeve, whose stepmother casts them out of the estate of their childhood after their father’s death. The house looms large in their memories and their relationship, and they revisit it in various ways over the years, never quite able to release its hold and its secrets.

Patchett crafts a dark fairy tale–without going over-the-top–and deftly examines the siblings’ commitment to one another and the differences in their perceptions of their youth.

Read if you like:

  • Sibling relationships
  • Mysterious houses
  • Stories told over decades.

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The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

The Most Fun We Ever Had

Author: Claire Lombardo
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Sorenson family is grounded by the seemingly perfect marriage of Marilyn and David. The four daughters in adulthood seem hampered by this perfection, given an example that is impossible to attain and that brings their own failures and struggles into sharp relief. But a closer look reveals that perfection in any life is a myth, and there is no one way to face adversity.

Filled with wonderfully complicated and compelling characters–some of whom you think you might dislike, but you actually end up loving. An excellent family and sibling novel to add to your TBR pile.

Read if you like:

  • Family dramas
  • Stories that jump back-and-forth in time
  • Long books.

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The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory

Author: Richard Powers
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

This 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner absolutely blew me away. Powers constructs a novel that begins with a series of seemingly disconnected stories, each grounded by a tree, and some of them stretching back more than a century. The “understory” finally lands us on a number of central characters.

These disparate characters come together in a larger-than-life narrative that becomes a call to activism, a meditation on our place in the world, and an awe-stricken view into the complex and impressive lives and resilience of trees. I was completely enthralled.

Read if you like:

  • Books about nature
  • Disparate stories coming together
  • Long books with complex narratives.

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Little Family by Ishmael Beah

Little Family

Author: Ishmael Beah
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

Ishmael Beah’s first fiction effort after his heartbreaking A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier takes us back to what he knows–children in Africa (the country is unnamed) struggling to get by on only their wits. 

The “little family” in the title is composed of five children living together in an abandoned airplane. The children are forced into wisdom and street smarts beyond their years, and every leg-up has trade-offs for these children on the fringes.

Lovely, and strangely uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time–an excellent choice when you’re looking for books you can’t put down.

Read if you like:

  • Books about struggle
  • Stories of found family
  • Books about surviving terrible situations.

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The Vanishing Half, a book about family drama with multiple generations

The Vanishing Half

Author: Brit Bennett
Publish Date: 2020
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

The story of two Black twin sisters, raised in a small town where light skin is valued and sought after when building families. The two run to New Orleans as teens and then take very different life paths, only to be reunited decades later and forced to reckon with their choices.

The raves for this book are well-deserved; it features intricately drawn, multi-generational characters exploring race, identity, and family.

Read if you like:

  • Books about race and identity
  • Books about siblings
  • Stories told back-and-forth over decades.

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Sugar Birds by Cheryl Grey Bostrom

Sugar Birds

Author: Cheryl Grey Bostrum
Publish Date: 2021
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

In Washington State in the 1980s, Aggie is a ten-year-old who loves birds and climbing trees. But after a fight with her mother about her climbing, she lights a fire that ends in tragedy–and she flees into the woods.

Celia, 16 and angry at being left with her grandmother for a few months, joins the search for Aggie. Her anger turns to intrigue as she gets to know Aggie’s autistic brother, Burnaby, and the charismatic Cabot, a local farm worker. She feels a kinship with Aggie and slowly gains her trust, just as her own relationship turns dangerous.

This was a fantastic eco-fiction novel with three unforgettable characters, each brilliant and sensitive in their own ways. I loved their bonds and their ties to the Washington landscape. One of my best books of 2021.

Read if you like:

  • Books about tough girls
  • Books about unlikely friendships
  • Books about nature.

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A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

A Good Neighborhood

Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Publish Date: 2020
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

Neighbors are suspicious when an affluent family moves into an established neighborhood and tears down the existing house to build a McMansion. Their renovations destroy Valerie Alston-Holt’s beloved old tree, and that’s the last straw.

The stakes rise and are complicated by the secret relationship between Valerie’s son and the new neighbors’ teenage daughter, until they reach their tipping point.

A compelling story that examines issues of race, class, and how people with different values can live alongside one another. 

Read if you like:

  • Suburban drama
  • Books about race and class
  • Neighbor feuds.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History

Author: Donna Tartt
Publish Date: 2004
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

This is the story of a group of classics students at an elite New England college and their relationships with each other and an eccentric but compelling professor. The students seem to strive for elitism and arrogance, and often toe the line of morality. They eventually cross it when they kill one of their own. You learn this on the first page and then are drawn into the tale of how they got to that point and the aftermath.

NoNone of the characters in this big book are likable, but they are compelling in their insularity and self-destructiveness. The Secret History is among my favorite books, but it is divisive. People seem to either love it or hate it–but it can’t be left off of a list of literary books you can’t put down.

Read if you like:

  • Dark academic novels
  • A literary murder mystery
  • Stories of insular, cult-like groups.

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The Other's Gold by Elizabeth Ames

The Other’s Gold

Author: Elizabeth Ames
Publish Date: 2020
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

Lainey, Ji Sun, Alice, and Margaret are roommates and best friends in college, and the independence and intensity of campus life bonds them forever.

Over the years, as the women graduate and move into adulthood, each makes a terrible mistake. The book walks through each–the Accident, the Accusation, the Kiss, and the Bite–examining the shifts and evolution in the women and their friendships.

Read if you like:

  • Books about friends
  • College friendships into adulthood
  • Back-and-forth timelines.

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The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master’s Son

Author: Adam Johnson
Publish Date: 2012
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Orphan Master’s Son is the tale of Pak Jun Do, the son of a man who runs an orphan work camp for young boys in North Korea. As Jun Do (“John Doe”) grows up he rises through the ranks of the North Korean hierarchy, moving closer to Kim Jong Il and the woman he loves. This is an illuminating, thrilling, and horrifying look at life inside North Korea, with plot twists that will keep you hooked to the last page.

This Pulitzer Prize winner has stayed with me and I still think of it anytime I hear about North Korea; it’s absolutely riveting.

Read if you like:

  • Stories about North Korea
  • Stories told over decades
  • Literary thrillers.

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Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes

Author: Mary Beth Keane
Publish Date: 2020
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

Ask Again, Yes follows two neighbor families over decades. While the adults are not close, children Kate and Peter are. They forge a friendship in childhood, but a violent event rips the families apart and has repercussions long afterward. Kate and Peter, however, never forget one another and reunite as adults.

Time, distance, and adulthood sometimes bring new perspectives on past events–and sometimes they don’t and those events are dealt with in other ways. A difficult read, but with excellent characters and writing.

Read if you like:

  • Books about neighbors
  • Heavy, character-driven novels
  • Stories told over decades.

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What Comes After by Joanne Tomkins

What Comes After

Author: Joanne Tompkins
Publish Date: 2021
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mysteries & Thrillers

In a small Washington town, the horrifying deaths of two teen boys shock everyone. Daniel’s father, Isaac, mourns his son and grapples with his anger, turning to his Quaker faith. Jonah’s mother, Lorrie, struggles with guilt.

When Evangeline, a pregnant teen girl comes into their lives, she offers both hope for new beginnings–and the possibility of answers to the questions that plague them. Told in alternating voices of imperfect characters, Tompkins weaves a riveting literary mystery and sensitive examination of tragedy and grief.

Read if you like:

  • Atmospheric writing
  • Literary mysteries
  • Stories of grace after tragedy.

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What are the literary books you can’t put down?

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