Being a time of tremendous transformation, the twenties provide rich pickings for writers, as revealed by our Collection of the best books set in the 1920s.
Known as the Années Folles (“crazy years”) in France, the Roaring Twenties certainly roared in big, brassy style. In America and Europe, the post-WWI period saw economic prosperity and sweeping social change. Cities like Berlin, London, LA, NYC, Chicago and Paris become hotbeds of cultural energy as Art Deco elegance peaked and the Jazz Age trumpeted its arrival.
Marked by new flapper fashion, new music and new political landscapes, with women given the right to vote in many countries, the era was also defined by the advent of large-scale automobile production, moving pictures, radio and telephones, all of which radically changed communication.
But we all know how the twenties ended – the decade that came in like a roaring lion went out with the devastating wail of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. It’s fair to say that while the Jazz Age burned bright, it also burned itself out in explosive style, as explored in Hernan Diaz’s 2022 novel Trust.
All that considered, it’s no surprise that so many of us relish novels from (or set in) the twenties — stories that encapsulate the frenzy and freedom of the Jazz Age. The dazzling glitz and glamour (and their dark flipsides). The seismic shifts in society that engendered sweeping personal change. The same is true of 1920s-set novels written after the fact – the decade continues to have tremendous allure for contemporary writers.
As a result, this Collection of novels set in the 1920s covers books that were written during those heady days along with recently-published novels, among them the brilliantly bizarre Hokey Pokey, jazzy London-set Shrines of Gaiety and An Unsuitable Woman - think The Great Gatsby set in colonial Kenya.
Talking of which, when it comes to notable novels that were actually penned in the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has become the era-defining novel. Through the shimmer of silk and never-ending flow of Champagne, it reveals the underside of the American Dream with exquisite potency.
If you’re smitten by the novel and fancy recreating Gatsby-esque glamour for yourself, might we recommend The Great Gatsby Cookbook? You’re also likely to love Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, a whip-smart satire on the American Dream, and you should also read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned.
For Gatsby-esque coming-of-age angst and romance, Laura Wood’s A Sky Painted Gold is a wonderfully escapist read.
Love classic crime and the 1920s? Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy has your name all over it. Sticking with crime, Agatha Christie is a must-read writer for 1920s fans, while Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York reveals the emerging criminal underbelly of the age.
Exhibiting the era’s experimental spirit, James Joyce’s Ulysses is a product of this radical era. With a rep for being a read that’s impossible to finish, why not set yourself the challenge of giving it another go? The twenties also heralded the publication of Virginia Woolf’s 1923-set Mrs Dalloway, and saw DH Lawrence write Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Staying in France, Jean Rhys’ debut novel Quartet, published in 1928, brilliantly explores unhappy affairs and identity crises in smoky cafes and grubby bedsits, as experienced by the author in the bohemian circles she frequented in 1920s Paris.
And, staying in the City of Light, The Paris Bookseller, published in 2022 and also set in the world of 1920s literary bohemians, tells an enthralling tale of love and betrayal.
At the same time, Berlin was also kicking up its heels as evoked by Irmgard Keun, whose extraordinary, incisive The Artificial Silk Girl put me in mind of a German Jean Rhys as it follows the trials of a would-be actress who discovers Berlin’s roaring twenties glamour and wealth isn’t accessible to everyone.
Of course, the sweeping tides of change and history certainly wasn’t restricted to Europe and America, and mention must be made of one of my recent favourite novels. Namely, Amanda Smyth’s Fortune. Set in 1920s Trinidad, it reveals the clash of the old and the new when traditional ways of life are threatened by the emerging oil industry. It’s also a blooming brilliant story of love, lust, longing and ambition.
On that note, read on to discover a bedazzlement of fiction set in the intoxicating twenties.