6 Historical Fiction Picks for Book Clubs

6 Historical Fiction Picks for Book Clubs

Historical fiction can be an entertaining tool for learning about days past. It can also be much more. Many novels set in previous periods go beyond a simple rendering of life in a particular time and place in history. For instance, authors may take advantage of the freedom provided by writing outside of their own eras to play with the notion of time itself, or to examine deeper truths about humanity. Books that provide the fun opportunity to reflect on historical details while introducing larger thematic topics often make for great book club selections.

Below are six such books that come highly recommended from our reviewers, with reading guides to spark ideas for discussing them with your book group. Several of these novels employ multiple timelines or cover a longer span of time, and some include connections to well-known people or events but speak from perspectives that have not always been considered historically significant. They all put a unique and valuable spin on the genre.


The Shadow King

The Shadow King: A Novel
by Maaza Mengiste


Paperback Oct 2020. 448 pages
Published by W.W. Norton & Company

Mengiste's Booker-nominated historical fiction epic The Shadow King is a sprawling, vivid look at Ethiopia during the time of Mussolini's invasion of the country in the 1930s. It is told from multiple points of view but unrolls primarily from the perspective of a woman caught up in the war, Hirut, who fights with a rifle she inherited from her father. The novel alternates between the main timeline and one that follows Hirut 40 years later. Mengiste's prose is ambitious and her storytelling complex; The Shadow King gives voice to Ethiopian female soldiers of the era, and is also an exploration of the mechanisms that drive humanity in times of strife. View our book club discussion for inspiration in talking about this novel with your own group.

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The Dutch House

The Dutch House
by Ann Patchett


Paperback Jan 2021. 352 pages
Published by Harper Perennial

This novel from Ann Patchett revolves around the house of the title, a residence near Philadelphia built by a Dutch couple in the early 20th century and purchased by a man named Cyril Conroy at the end of World War II. The book focuses on Cyril's children, Danny and Maeve Conroy, over a period of 50 years, through their parents' divorce and other familial conflicts. The house itself acts as a constant in their lives to which they remain connected, and Patchett's evocative and atmospheric writing paints a poignant picture of the relationship between the siblings through the decades.

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The Book of Longings

The Book of Longings
by Sue Monk Kidd


Paperback Mar 2021. 448 pages
Published by Penguin Books

The Book of Longings follows Ana, a woman living in first-century Judea who is passionate about writing and scholarly pursuits. She is at one point married to Jesus of Nazareth, a detail that may help the reader place the main character in history but is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, not a major focus of the story. The book is primarily about Ana and how she deals with the ways her desires conflict with what is expected of a woman in her culture and time. It is also full of rich historical descriptions of the world around her.

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Jack

Jack
by Marilynne Robinson


Paperback Apr 2021. 320 pages
Published by Picador

Jack is the fourth installment in Robinson's Gilead series, but can be enjoyed as a standalone, making it a viable option for book clubs who don't want to have to consider the other novels required reading. The title character is a complicated and mysterious man, a prankster and criminal who has appeared in previous books. Here, Robinson's focus is on Jack, who is white, and his romance with Della, a Black woman — in the early 1950s, this interracial love story has social and political implications that reach far beyond the characters themselves. Through this lens, Robinson spins larger questions about the problems and complexities of love.

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Hamnet

Hamnet
by Maggie O'Farrell


Paperback May 2021. 320 pages
Published by Vintage

Like The Book of Longings, Hamnet follows a woman married to a famous historical figure — in this case, Shakespeare. The title refers to the son of William Shakespeare and his wife Agnes; the book is told from the point of view of Agnes, and depicts the effect that Hamnet's death at a young age has on his parents. O'Farrell approaches this story through two timelines in the earlier sections of the novel, moving between the week of the boy's death and the courtship between William and Agnes years earlier. Hamnet includes references to Shakespeare's work while also commenting on general ideas about grief and the creative process.

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The Book of V.

The Book of V.
by Anna Solomon


Paperback Jun 2021. 320 pages
Published by Picador

The Book of V. is a retelling of the biblical Book of Esther that traces the experiences of three women in different time periods: Esther herself, a Jewish woman attempting to save her people in ancient Persia; Vee, the wife of an American senator in the 1970s; and Lily, a mother and homemaker in the contemporary era. Solomon explores all three characters in terms of their relationship to marriage, eventually tying the three storylines together. Her approach allows for a captivating examination of womanhood over time from a feminist perspective.

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