A Place for Us
Fatima Farheen Mirza
An Indian wedding reunites an estranged family in Mirza’s debut: youngest child Amar, incommunicado for three years; his father, Rafiq, whose attempts to level with his son are more missed connections; eldest daughter and bride, Hadia, who requested Amar’s return. But while the siblings repair their bonds in the present, it’s the flashbacks to their childhood in the early 2000s that provide context for what drove a wedge between Hadia, middle child Huda, and Amar.
The Lost Night
A contemporary true-crime thriller turns personal when Lindsay revisits the sudden, inexplicable death of her friend Edie a decade earlier. Drawing upon her skills as a fact-checker, Lindsay delves into her spotty memories of their time together in drug-fueled hipster lofts in Brooklyn, interrogating whether Edie’s death was actually a suicide—or whether Lindsay herself played a part in cutting Edie’s young life tragically short.
Spanning the first five years of the decade, O’Neill’s thoughtful meditation on the immigrant experience unites Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker debating whether to stay in New York City post-9/11 or join his family in London, with Chuck Ramkissoon, a charismatic Trinidadian Indian who desperately wants to be be embedded in American life. They meet on Chuck’s cricket pitch in Staten Island, where they play alongside men from India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Guyana, and more.
While Amy Dunne officially goes missing on her and Nick’s fifth anniversary, the damage begins back in 2008, when the recession claims their magazine jobs. “I wanted to explore what it meant to lose a job [for] people in their late 30s,” Flynn said. “I had Nick and Amy, two people who had always thought their jobs would be very safe. And to have that taken away from them… to be forced to reinvent themselves a little bit.” Wow, do they ever.
Sittenfeld’s poignant account of scholarship student Lee’s four years at a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school is so keen that some critics have wondered just how much the author drew from her own experiences teaching in those kinds of high-pressure, socially stratified settings. Lee’s attempts to assimilate with the preppy, privileged peers she sharply scrutinizes while cementing her alienation from her humble middle-class origins—including a fling with an out-of-her-league boy—capture the yearning push-and-pull of mid-2000s adolescence.
The Emperor's Children
Messud’s novel follows 30-something New Yorkers Marina, Danielle, and Julius, all failing to live up to the wunderkind promise of their 20s, through a year of professional and personal scrambles. The year, however, is 2001. While the arrival of former it-girl novelist Marina’s 19-year-old cousin Bootie seems poised to disrupt their lives—by way of an affair and an exposé—the September 11 attacks puts all of their petty squabbles into harsh perspective.
After meeting through a McSweeney’s anthology collecting the voices of Hurricane Katrina, Eggers profiled Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American immigrant who stayed in New Orleans through the storm, traveling via canoe to aid people trapped in their homes. Until, that is, Zeitoun was arrested by the U.S. National Guard and detained for weeks on suspicions of terrorism. Despite the fallout in Zeitoun’s personal life in subsequent years, his narrative is a compelling snapshot of a particular time and place.
Pynchon’s surreal modern noir set between the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11 name-drops everything in that short era, from Mossad to Madoff. The story finds its “detective” in unlicensed fraud investigator Maxine, whose insights into the workings of various startups takes her from bizarre house visits in Montauk to police chases on the East River. As various confidants and conspirators start winding up dead, Maxine encounters clues that mean plenty to readers aware of the terrible context.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
While Moshfegh initially set out to center her second novel on 9/11, she wound up broadening that focus to the year before: in June 2000, the unnamed narrator seemingly has it all, as a slim Columbia graduate living off her inheritance. But that money comes at the loss of both her parents, and it’s not enough to offset her emptiness. So she embarks on a self-imposed hibernation through various sleeping aids, to sleep through the next 365 days. But what will she awake to?
Despite everything, Will is approaching middle age with a surprising amount of stability. Even as he and his wife are mourning the loss of their son, they’re still emotionally and physically intimate; estranged from his famous swimmer twin, Will still takes pride in his work as a psychoanalyst. However, attending his 25th college reunion stokes old flames and has this shrink pondering, and actively envying, the potential paths—of romance and fatherhood—not taken.
The Autograph Man
For her second novel, Smith captured the era of celebrity fame immediately preceding the advent of social media, when movie stars seemed inaccessible and fans would drain their savings for a mere autograph. Alex-Li Tandem is the eponymous autograph man, collecting and selling these treasured scribbles as cold business transactions—except for the one autograph, from 1940s movie star Kitty Alexander, which will for some reason be the cure for all his ills.
House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
This matryoshka-doll narrative starts with unreliable narrator Johnny Truant appending footnotes to a manuscript by a man called Zampanò. The manuscript is an academic exploration into a documentary, The Navidson Record: Will Navidson’s investigation into why his house is expanding in size internally (including eerie rooms like “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway”) while retaining the same external dimensions. The ensuing, spiraling account brings to mind the best kind of early-2000s Snopes entry or convincing creepypasta.
While Gibson’s previous novels were set in imagined cyberpunk futures, this was his first one to be set in the then-present—August 2002, to be precise. After a traumatic start to the decade, in a time when people are looking for meaning in seemingly random patterns, advertising consultant Cayce is distracted from her usual work of evaluating the effectiveness of famous corporate logos to investigate who’s uploading enigmatic film clips to the internet and why.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
A decade ago, the closest way to stay in touch with your besties wasn’t a text thread or Facebook group, but a pair of denim. That is, denim that perfectly conformed to each of your bodies no matter their different measurements and somehow matched every occasion: Lena’s misunderstanding-turned-love in Greece; Tibby’s documentary about her leukemia-afflicted neighbor Bailey; Carmen’s friction with her father on the eve of his second wedding; and Bridget’s illicit pursual of a soccer camp coach.
Through the interconnected stories, three women compare heady first loves to the adult lives they’ve settled in (and which they’re tempted to disrupt). Holly kisses plenty of internet frogs through online dating, while reminiscing fondly on her burnout boyfriend. Maggie lets her husband in on her inner life, especially one particularly crazy summer, only to fear his reproach. Sarah Lee also ponders the one who got away, but in order to help her approach someone else.
How incredible that books set within the past two decades already seem like time capsules of an era that bears little resemblance to the present. As demonstrated by many of the reads on this list, society was indelibly shaped by the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the economic recession. We can also see the changes in stories about celebrity before social media, the rise of online dating before swipe-right culture, career paths, and even ways of falling in love that didn’t exist 20 years ago. These books simultaneously mourn futures we expected to have at the start of the 21st century while revealing the new paths discovered or—in many cases—carved out of sheer willfulness. Reinvention, rebirth, and rebuilding are the themes of these books set in the first decade of the new millennium.
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