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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

11 Best-Ever Debut Novels of the Past 50 Years

It’s hard enough to write a great book that stands the test of time. But to do it on your first try? That’s truly astounding.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt (2004)

While Tartt’s more recent book The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, her very first novel is a gem as well. This earlier book features a group of brainy but quirky college students and their charismatic professor whose lives are forever bound by a secret tragedy.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)

Despite being a somewhat dense read, one cannot help but be awed by the language, imagery, humor and sheer humanity of this expansive story set in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic. Diaz overwhelms with his talent right out of the novel-writing starting gate.

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Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

A true sci-fi classic, this story won all three science fiction titles upon its publication (the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick awards). A must-read for anyone interested in futuristic fiction.

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The Known World by Edward P Jones (2003)

This ambitious story set twenty years before the Civil War tells the tale of a former slave who himself becomes a slave owner and proprietor of his own plantation. An unforgettable debut that won the Pulitzer Prize.

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Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)

Set in the western town of Fingerbone, this haunting tale about the haphazard upbringing of two sisters is unparalleled for creating mood, sense of place, and atmosphere. Although it’s a quiet story, you’ll find that it lingers in the mind long after the final page is turned.

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The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989)

Cleverly set around the game of Mahjong, this unique story spans topics including family loyalty, mothers and daughters, immigration, and Chinese culture. Sure there’s a movie, but the book is better—more nuanced, more tender, more multi-layered.

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The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980)

Just because this enigmatic mystery is set in 1327 in an abbey in Italy doesn’t mean it’s musty, fusty, dull, or outdated. Let’s face it, greed, pride, lust, ego and evil have been around forever—and still are, sadly. When the abbey is suddenly beset with seven bizarre deaths, one of the brothers turns detective, deciphering secret symbols and coded manuscripts, exploring the eerie labyrinth of the ancient building where strange things happen in the dead of night.

This brilliant tale features perhaps the most ingenious murder weapon ever—but we’re not telling.

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanne Clark (2004)

It took British author Clark ten years to finish her first novel, and it was worth the wait. Set in 19th century England, the story offers an alternative history of that era based on the premise that magic once existed in England, and has recently returned in the form of two men: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. It’s one enigmatic and imaginative read. And who doesn’t like a little magic to spice things up?

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The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987)

Wolfe was seasoned writer of nonfiction for years before penning his debut novel. And what a novel it was! In the book, Wolfe coined the phrase “Masters of the Universe” to describe a generation of ambitious young greed-driven Wall Streeters during the 1980s. It’s a juicy cautionary tale about the addictive lure of money and power. The whole Wall Street greed thing, sadly, remains relevant today.

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Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

OK, so it turns out Stephen King was pretty great right from the get-go. This was the debut novel that launched King’s astonishingly prolific career —he’s published at least 59 novels and dozens of short stories, scripts, anthologies etc. In Carrie, if you’ve been living under a rock and have never heard of it, a troubled girl terrorizes those who terrorized her, using her supernatural powers. Many decades later, King remains the King of horror.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon (2003)

The book that arguably put Asperger’s on the mainstream map, this exceptional novel won several awards, and inspired a Broadway show that won several Tony awards. Told with incredible skill and insight, Haddon allows the reader to spend time inside the unique and wonderful place that is 15-year-old narrator Christopher Boone’s mind.

Amy Reilly
Amy Reilly is executive editor of Reader's Digest Select Editions.