5 Great Books About Boston (And 1 That’s Not-So-Great)

On the cusp of heading to Boston for the Associated Writing Programs Conference (AWP), I thought I’d do a quick list of a few great (and one not-so-great) books either set in, or about, Boston. These also happen to be the books I found most helpful when I was researching Girls I Know, which is also set in Boston. If I’ve left off a Boston book dear to you in this all-too-brief list, please e-mail and let me know.

1.         Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, by J. Anthony Lukas. Unparalleled take on the city in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King assassination. The account of what desegregation looked and felt like from different perspectives in the city is riveting. Also a treasure trove of facts and details about Boston neighborhoods. Deserving of every award it won, and the book won a lot.

2.         The Boston Renaissance: Race, Space, and Economic Change in an American Metropolis, by Barry Bluestone and Mary Huff Stevenson. This is a data-intensive study of how the city changed from the early 1970s on. The scope of the challenges once faced by Boston is hard to believe today, so this book lends great perspective. It also documents population shifts within the city, and economic disparity, in an incredibly detailed manner.

3.         The Rise of Silas Lapham, by William Dean Howells. My buddy Jonathan Freedman recommended I take a look at this when I first started working on Girls I Know and I’m glad he did. Silas makes some money, uproots his family from Vermont, and moves down to Boston, with mixed results. Parts of the novel anticipate Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, granted without the sting. The self-assured status of Boston (the book first appeared in 1885) is what I found most transfixing.

4.         The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In following these families, Goodwin gives a great account of how Boston changed, and also stayed the same. We watch boys selling papers, then going to college, then running for mayor. The North End in particular undergoes some incredibly metamorphoses in the nineteenth century that Goodwin relates with great detail and affection.

5.         Mystic River, Dennis Lehane. Haunting and gritty and also at times unbearably sad, but also perfectly in tune with the neighborhood it explores and how it both changes and stays the same over time.

6.         (And one book that isn’t that great.) The Bostonians, by Henry James. Appears the same year as Silas Lapham. Not a particularly deft handling of the feminist movement (that’s putting it mildly) and Boston comes across as a little staid as well. What is amazing is to consider that this book follows on the heels of Portrait of a Lady (1881) and yet lacks so much of what makes Portrait so stunning, including the great plot turns and complicated characters.