Best fiction books of 2011

To reflect the eclectic tastes of readers, we asked nine critics to pick their 10 favorite books of the year, each starting with the title that they think deserves special attention

Daniel Haskett for The Boston Globe
Daniel Haskett for The Boston Globe

“Solo’’ by Rana Dasgupta (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Every great book breaks rules. Dwarves, child prodigies, murder victims, they’ve all narrated our treasured classics. And one day Rana Dasgupta’s “Solo’’ will be spoken of with the same hushed reverence. It is a magical, heartbreaking book full of occult wisdom and lyrical grace. A book about how we never stand outside history; and yet how we must see ourselves in that way to live. No one understands this conundrum better than the book’s 100-year-old Bulgarian hero, whose life story consumes the first half of the novel. In the second half, his imagined children carom out of the crumbling Soviet bloc like sparks off a Catherine wheel, and Dasgupta follows their fading arcs. Of living writers only Peter Carey and Rachel Seiffert write as selflessly as Dasgupta. Only David Mitchell seems to take such joy in storytelling. Read it now and marvel at how you thought your life was complete beforehand.

Daniel Haskett for The Boston Globe


“The Last Man in the Tower’’ by Aravind Adiga (Knopf)

“The Wandering Falcon’’ by Jamil Ahmad (Riverhead)


“The Sense of an Ending’’ by Julian Barnes (Knopf)

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“Leaving the Atocha Station’’ by Ben Lerner

(Coffee House)

“The Cat’s Table’’ by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf)

“The Buddha in the Attic’’ by Julie Otsuka (Knopf)


“Swamplandia’’ by Karen Russell (Knopf)

Daniel Haskett for The Boston Globe

“There But for The’’ by Ali Smith (Pantheon)

“The Barbarian Nurseries’’ by Héctor Tobar

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’

“Witches on the Road Tonight’’

by Sheri Holman (Grove)


Sheri Holman possesses - and offers her readers - a set of literary gifts that rarely come in pairs. She’s goddess of the details that bring a place, a person, a moment to life on the page. And she’s a skilled practitioner of magical realism, weaving the imaginary and the actual together into one seamless, transporting whole. In “Witches on the Road Tonight’’ she follows a backwoods Appalachian family in 1940 to Manhattan in 2011. What lies between is a stream of singing sentences that advance the imaginative plot. “Laurel bushes cling to the cliff while rain-swelled springs flow in channels beside the road like running boards on a car.’’ The only thing wrong with this novel is that although it garnered raves in all the right places, every single person on earth has yet to buy it, and everyone should have. Luckily, it’s not too late.


“Blueprints for Building Better Girls’’

by Elissa Schappell (Simon and Schuster)

“The Uncoupling’’ by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead)

“This Beautiful Life’’ by Helen Schulman (Harper)

“The Taste of Salt’’ by Martha Southgate (Algonquin)

“Undying’’ by Todd Gitlin (Counterpoint)

“The Silver Lotus’’ by Thomas Steinbeck


“Swim Back to Me’’ by Ann Packer (Knopf)

“Sing You Home’’ by Jodi Picoult (Atria)

“I Married You for Happiness’’ by Lily Tuck

(Atlantic Monthly)

Meredith Maran’s first novel, “A Theory of Small Earthquakes,’’ will be published in February 2012. She can be reached at or on Twitter at @meredithmaran.

“Stone Arabia’’ by Dana Spiotta (Scribner)

In her superb and original third novel, “Stone Arabia,’’ Dana Spiotta nails this cultural moment in America - our fixation on fame, our fascination with the faux, the troubles we have expressing love, and our collective oversaturation with images of suffering. She’s a remarkable stylist, with fine-honed sentences, risky structural choices, and kaleidoscopic points of view. But most important, with this sad rendition of the powerful bond between a beloved older brother and the admiring younger sister who can’t save him from his obsessions as they grow older, she stirs us emotionally. Denise, who had dreamt of being an actress, is an empath with “a nearly debilitating sympathy’’ not only for her reclusive brother, Nik, with his invented “chronicles’’ complete with Rolling Stone interviews, but for all the creatures whose lives she sees unravel on screens throughout her day. I can’t think of a better ironic motto for our socially networked times than the never famous 50-year-old rocker’s aside to his sister: “Self curate or disappear.’’


“The Color of Night’’ by Madison Smartt Bell


“The Astral’’ by Kate Christensen (Doubleday)

“Open City’’ by Teju Cole (Random House)

“Our Daily Bread’’ by Lauren B. Davis

(Wordcraft of Oregon)

“Say Her Name’’ by Francisco Goldman (Grove)

“The Magician King’’ by Lev Grossman (Viking)

“The Barbarian Nurseries” by Héctor Tobar

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“The Buddha in the Attic’’ by Julie Otsuka (Knopf)

“Blueprints for Building Better Girls’’

by Elissa Schappell (Simon and Schuster)

Jane Ciabattari, vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at