On her first day at Harvard in 1995, the most important thing Selin receives is her first email address. During that transformative freshman year, her world is expanded by fellow students in Cambridge, but mostly by e-correspondences with Hungarian mathematics student Ivan. Selin marvels at this new age of meta love letters: “And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you—all the words you threw out, they came back.”
Nearing the end of the millennium and the end of his own life, 75-year-old everyman Henry Maxwell spends 1998 feeling as if his life is more complicated than ever. He doesn’t understand his children’s unhappiness, he feels unsafe in his changing neighborhood, and more than one peer has shuffled off their mortal coil. But he’s not dead yet. After several posthumous mentions in Wish You Were Here and Emily Alone, the Maxwell patriarch gets his own opportunity for self-reflection.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
It’s 1993, and Paul Polydoris is a queer shapeshifter traveling across state and gender lines: Riot Grrl, leather cub, trade, lesbian; from Iowa City to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to San Francisco. In Lawlor’s debut, a bildungsroman inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Ovid’s The Metamorphosis, Paul embodies all gender identities and sexual orientations of the decade, even some (like trans and nonbinary) that weren’t yet mainstream.
As the sensationalist host of daytime-TV staple The Mattie M Show, the Jerry Springer-esque Matthew Miller encourages his guests to be their worst selves on live TV, from secret-crush segments to hidden secrets. But when two teenagers behind a deadly school shooting are revealed to be fans of the show, Matthew becomes the focus of his viewers’ insatiable need for sordid entertainment, as the details of his past life are uncovered.
Waiting for Tom Hanks
Despite being a millennial who writes listicles, Annie is emotionally stuck in the ’80s and ’90s—specifically, classic rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. She pines for a love interest who doesn’t have to be Tom Hanks but must be of that era: vulnerable, snarky, disarming. When she gets a PA job on a film set and clashes with prankster lead Drew Danforth, everybody but Annie realizes she’s landed in a rom-com of her own.
Set in 1992 at the intersection of New York City publishing and the nationwide AIDS crisis, Rowley’s second novel delves into the unexplored third act of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s life. Here, she is the eponymous editor, acquiring a gay novelist’s debut manuscript. Drawn to his clearly autobiographical mother-son relationship, she encourages him to make peace with his all-but-estranged mother before discovering the fictional ending.
Back when email was still the Wild West of interoffice communications, a manager might have his IT guy monitor inboxes to make sure employees weren’t just sending each other chain letters all day. And that IT guy might unintentionally eavesdrop on the conversation between the newspaper copyeditor and the resident movie reviewer. And, in Rowell’s delightful debut novel, he just might fall in love with a pop-culture-savvy writer he’s never actually met.
Murder on the Left Bank
Since 1998’s Murder in the Marais, Black has written nearly 20 murder mysteries set in Paris arrondissements, starring Aimée Leduc, a punky private investigator in secondhand Chanel. In the latest installment, Aimée must face down the Hand, the corrupt cabal responsible for her father’s murder, while fearing for her daughter’s wellbeing. Despite the passage of 20 years, Black draws on historical research and her own time living in Paris to keep the Leduc mysteries accurately embedded in the ’90s.
Top five desert island albums. Top five Elvis Costello songs. Top five episodes of Cheers. Top five… most memorable breakups? Reeling from his latest split, London record-shop owner Rob decides to revisit key relationships in an effort to decide whether he wants to commit to his recent ex, Laura—despite the scariness of settling down—or if he’s fated to always be making mixtapes for his next crush.
Someday, Someday, Maybe
January 1995, and aspiring actress Franny has only six months left to make good on her three-year deadline of attaining Meryl Streep-levels of stardom. When her agent books her a promising role in a zombie movie and a hot actor in class starts paying attention to her, she seems to be on her way—except neither is a perfect fit. Drawing on her own pre-Gilmore Girls stardom, Graham infuses her debut novel with authentic make-it-or-break-it early ’90s energy.
Little Fires Everywhere
Ng’s second novel opens with the picture-perfect Richardson family’s home going up in flames. But while this mysterious act of arson rattles the Shaker Heights community, what’s most combustible are the relationships between the residents and the unplanned factors threatening their suburban ideal—including a transient artist and her daughter, and the custody battle over a Chinese-American baby.
Look Alive Twenty-Five
Despite over 25 installments since 1994’s One for the Money, the Stephanie Plum series is timeless, like your favorite local deli or eccentric family dinners—or, in the case of this bounty hunter who learns on the job, the threat of exploding cars. This time around (still solidly in the ’90s), Stephanie takes on a part-time job as the Red River Deli’s new manager in order to figure out why her predecessors keep disappearing out of thin air.
Althea & Oliver
By the end of junior year, best friends Oliver and Althea are growing apart, and not for the typical reasons. Afflicted with Kleine-Levin syndrome, Oliver sleeps for weeks at a time, awakening with memory gaps and missing out on high school happenings. Worse, Althea did something unforgivable during one of Oliver’s semi-conscious periods. When he leaves their North Carolina hometown for a sleep study in New York, she feels compelled to follow and repair their friendship.
More than a decade after the success of his 1984 debut, Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney took another swing at the glittering New York City magazine world with this 1990s-set follow-up. Instead of documenting hedonistic club culture, Model Behavior examines the addictive nature of fame through a magazine profile writer nursing his broken heart with all manner of bad decisions after getting dumped by his model girlfriend.
Bridget Jones's Diary
Two brave women ushered singletons through the crucible of dating in the ’90s: Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones. Fielding’s field guide from the other side of the pond follows Bridget through a year of her life, as she resolves to go to the gym and stop wasting her time with lascivious men—only to be drawn into a love triangle with her naughty boss, Daniel Cleaver, and the aptly-named, insufferable Mark Darcy.
The true defining marker of the ’90s—and the drawing of many a generation gap—is how old you were when you discovered email. It stands to reason, then, that many of the books on this list are about the first thrills of electronic correspondence, from connecting strangers across the globe to serving as the modern love letter. However, the beauty of this decade is that it contains multitudes. A number of these books celebrate the not-yet-lost art of making mixtapes; in between, there’s arson, daytime TV, Jackie O, and two series that actually started in the ’90s and have remained frozen in time, like mosquitoes in amber. (Yes, that was a Jurassic Park reference.) Enjoy the nostalgia trip with these compulsively readable picks.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures