I was on a women’s surf retreat in Morocco, just down the coast from Essaouira, when that soon-to-be ubiquitous book first crossed my path. One of the women had opted out of the morning’s session, choosing instead to curl up in a towel on the beach with a book she simply couldn’t abandon.
‘But the swell is perfect today’, our instructor tried to coax her.
‘No thanks; I’ll join later’, she maintained. ‘I’ve got just 40 more pages’.
She finished the book as the rest of us peeled off our wetsuits, then she passed the tattered-edged copy to another woman in the group, who in turn skipped the afternoon session to read.
The book was Gone Girl and by the end of the weeklong trip, four different women in the group read the same copy of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 psychological thriller. They passed it among themselves and whispered about its contents over sunset cocktails like literary co-conspirators. I resisted reading it myself for as long as I could, but when I landed back in New York City my curiosity got the best of me. I didn’t even make it out of JFK airport before buying a copy.
Reading is obviously not relegated to any one season. But there’s something about summer – maybe it’s seeing the year’s biggest titles on display poolside and beachfront… a kind of literary voyeurism – that can ignite a book-fueled frenzy.
In honour of the beach read, those books that become as irresistible as a midday dip when the temps start to rise, we’ve rounded up our favourite summertime tomes from the past two decades, as well as a few newbies. Sure, The Beach technically reaches back 21 years, but we couldn’t resist a book that, at the time, single-handedly reignited travel fiction.
We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy (2017)
What’s even more entertaining than two upper-crust families duking it out? Two upper-crust families duking it out at their neighbouring summer homes on a tiny island off of Maine. Here, the high-society squabble takes place over just three days in Cold War-wary 1964.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy (2017)
Using her 2013 essay ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’ as a starting point, the New Yorker writer spins her personal story of career, heartache and what it means to be a modern woman into a full memoir.
Siracusa by Delia Ephron (2016)
If past betrayals are going to be revealed, may as well do it somewhere stunning, like on the sun-drenched coast of Sicily. That’s exactly what happens in this book about two couples traveling together in Italy.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016)
In this novel about a mother-daughter wellness mission in southern Spain, Levy writes about the ordinary so poetically, she manages to make even a jellyfish sting sound dreamy.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub (2014)
A New York family heads to Mallorca for a holiday and grapples with infidelity, as well as bodybuilding culture, beefcake Spanish tutors and adoption. Also check out Straub’s newer book, Modern Lovers, which came out last year.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
These days it’s hard not to picture Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as the protagonists in this marital thriller, thanks to the 2014 film directed by David Fincher. But if you never read the book, it’s still worth a go.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012)
Jumping from a 1960s film set on the coast of Italy to modern-day Hollywood, Beautiful Ruins has lost love, a Botox-obsessed movie producer, and imagined encounters with Richard Burton.
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)
Part self-help manual, part travelogue, Eat Pray Love has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. It also spawned a 2010 movie starring Julia Roberts and bottomless bowls of pasta, as well as a second book, called Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It, which chronicles real-life journeys inspired by the memoir.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
Here’s the murder mystery that got even non-crime readers jumping genres. At one point it was reported that the book sold one copy per second in the US. Additionally, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo drove lit fans to both Sweden and tattoo shops in droves.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
Mix alternate reality with a love triangle and the English countryside and you’ll get Never Let Me Go. The novel follows three childhood friends into adulthood, where they’re forced to reckon with the sci-fi world in which they live. Ah, young dystopian love.
Little Children by Tom Perotta (2004)
In the kind of town where nothing ever happens, Perotta – who’s also the brains behind The Leftovers – whips up suspense and dark humor, plus an affair, among a group of suburban parents.
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (2003)
Take this tale of the masochistic world of glossy fashion mags on holiday and be thankful that a) you’re not at work and b) you don’t have a boss as brutal as Miranda Priestly. That’s all.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
Not all summer reads are devoured and then just as quickly forgotten. More than one critic has called this Pulitzer Prize winner – which follows Jewish cousins in Brooklyn on their foray into comic-book writing during the days of Hitler – one of the best books of our time.
A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (1996)
Here’s the book responsible for countless office workers quoting ‘winter is coming’ around the water cooler. Yes, the HBO series Game of Thrones is back, and here’s the text that started it all.
The Beach by Alex Garland (1996)
Before selfies and Instagram-infatuated experience, there was a different kind of travel – the Gen X backpacker craze of the 90s. Garland captured that phenomena, ultimately offering a critique of it, in his book about the quest for paradise in Thailand.