Required Reading: 10 Classic Stories of Suburban Ennui

Forget summer in the city. This year, the heat is on in the suburbs. Whether in music — Arcade Fire’s third album is an extended rock homage to the burbs — or on television — Mad Men is back for its fourth season and still toggling back and forth from the leafy mid-century hamlets of upstate New York to the cutthroat world of Madison Avenue — or in books — Jonathan Franzen’s breathlessly awaited follow up to The Corrections, Freedom, centers on life and its discontents in suburban St. Paul — the vast sprawl is having its moment in the cultural spotlight.

In anticipation of Franzen’s book (due in stores on August 31), we found ourselves thinking about the literary tradition of the suburban novel — the fictive portraits of damaged domesticity, day drinking, and disillusion. As an American invention, novels of suburban ennui are only as old as their subject, but we’ve polled the last half-century (and beyond) to bring you these ten essential novels of suburbia and its displeasures.

Have we missed your favorite? Tell us in the comments section.

1. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The mother of all suburban novels, this harrowing tale of April and Frank Wheeler is haunted by the specter of lives unlived and paths not taken. Though the book will be turning 50 next year, its insights into boredom, escapism, and class are as relevant today as ever. The 2008 film was faithful to the book, but lacked the power and precision of Yates’s perfect prose. Read it rather than rent it.

2. Couples by John Updike
American suburbs, meet bed hopping. Want to know how sexual liberation plays out in the suburbs? This is book for you. Deemed scandalous and risqué at the time of its release in 1968, Couples — which tells the story of five twosomes in fictional Tarbox, Massachusetts — propelled Updike onto the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Adulterous Society.” Celebrated as a poet of suburban angst, Updike famously pushed boundaries by peering into American bedrooms.

3. The Stories of John Cheever
Like Updike, Cheever made a career of training his astute eye on inner conflict and dualism (perhaps a reflection of the author’s own struggle with his sexuality), and most of his work would be at home on this list. So perhaps it’s disingenuous to include this Pulitzer-prize winning collection of short stories on a list comprised chiefly of novels, but Cheever excelled in this format, and these masterfully crafted tales testify to why critics dubbed him the Chekhov of the suburbs. “The Swimmer” may be one of Cheever’s most anthologized stories, but read it once and you’ll agree it deserves the acclaim.

4. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
Set in the affluent suburbs of Connecticut in 1973, Moody’s atmospheric novel centers on neighboring families — the Hoods and the Williams — in parallel states of decline. Redolent with the spirit and pop culture of the era, The Ice Storm is a bleak look at human failure, tragedy, and sex. Its detachment and distance evokes the disassociation of its subjects.

5. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The tale of the deaths of the five Lisbon sisters is told in flashback from the perspective of the curious neighborhood boys who used to lust after them, a narrative trick that too renders the reader an astonished, helpless observer. Set in the Michigan suburbs of the early ’70s, The Virgin Suicides asks how much we can ever know about anyone else and forces us to confront the power of the talismanic artifacts of tragedy and infatuation. Eugenides’s precise descriptions will haunt you long after the last page.

6. White Noise by Don Delillo
The objects of Delillo’s National Book Award-winning novel — the most photographed barn in America, the airborne toxic event, the fictional drug Dylar — are as essential as people to this absurdist and satirical story of Jack Gladney, the chair of Hitler studies at a Midwestern college, his patchwork family, and modern American life. The book predates Prozac and post-9/11 uncertainty, yet it predicts both eerily. Funny, sharp, and prescient, White Noise is quintessential American postmodernism.


7. Little Children by Tom Perotta
The buzzing of cicadas and the wet relief of a summer storm animate this novel of infidelity and alienation. Frumpy and bored stay-at-home mom Sarah, an outsider in her idyllic community, begins an unlikely affair with the hunky and perpetual bar exam failer Todd, whom the neighborhood moms have dubbed the “Prom King.” Meanwhile a convicted pedophile returns after a jail sentence to the leafy suburb as illusions of control, among other things, are shattered.

8. Music for Torching by A.M. Homes
Novels of suburban ennui have been, for the most part, a men’s genre. Enter A. M. Homes, a writer who is not afraid to show the boys up at their own game. Mentioned in the same breath as other masters of the suburban novel — including Updike, of course — Homes takes domestic drama to disquieting destinations. In Music for Torching, Homes revisits Paul and Elaine, a crack-smoking couple from her collection The Safety of Objects, who literally set fire to the whole façade of suburban contentment.


9. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
The first of three novels that feature Ford’s anti-hero Frank Bascombe (the Pulitzer-prize winning Independence Day and The Lay of the Land complete the trilogy), The Sportswriter is a searing portrait of life and grief in the suburbs of New Jersey. A magazine writer, Bacombe is a character in a permanent state of fleeing — he’s escaped the vagaries of fiction writing and of family life — and crisis. That he misidentifies his detachment for dreaminess is only one of his many problems.


10. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Though neither American (it takes places northern France) nor exactly suburban (back then, they were called the provinces), Madame Bovary‘s titular protagonist is the precursor for many of the listless female heroines who populate post-war American literature (and this list). Perhaps the first bored housewife, Madame Bovary is evoked in characters like Sarah of Little Children, who defends the character to a hostile book club. A century and a half later, Flaubert’s masterpiece still reverberates in modern fiction