When we first came up with the idea for the Decades Reading Challenge, we envisioned that for the final month we would recommend a list of books published in 2020 that address the culture and challenges of this new decade. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and no one could have foreseen that we’d spend much of the first year of the 2020s in quarantine, working and learning from home in order to protect ourselves from a global pandemic.
As a result, many of this year’s new releases are set in a fictional 2020 – one in which the characters aren’t wearing masks and have never heard the phrase social distancing. Of course, we’ve enjoyed escaping to these alternate realities in the pages of books throughout this difficult year, and we even compiled a list of our favorite new releases of 2019 and 2020.
We know that in the coming years there will probably be some fascinating novels that examine life during COVID, but there really aren’t any books that yet reflect the reality of 2020. As a result, we’re taking a bit of a different approach for the final month of the Decades Reading Challenge by recommending books set over a period of decades.
You can read all about the challenge, download your free printable reading tracker, and find book lists for each decades from 1910-2010 here.
We’ve heard from many of you that, throughout the challenge, you’ve loved diving into specific decades and discovering fascinating historical events that we didn’t learn about in school. There’s also a lot to learn by reading long-view novels, non-fiction, or memoirs that span multiple times or multiple generations and allow us to observe how things change over time.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best books spanning multiple decades from the 1910s through present day. Rather than providing just a snapshot, these books provide a panoramic view of the life in the 20th century and early 21st century.
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Books Spanning Multiple Decades, From the 1910s to 2020
by Melanie Benjamin Setting: Caribbean coast of Colombia, Turn of the Century-1930s First published 1985
Florentino and Fermina fell in love when they were young, but she devastates him when she chooses to instead marry a wealthy doctor. For the next fifty years, and Florentino stays busy in business and with “622 affairs,” but throughout all the years, his love for Fermina never fades. Throughout the novel, the technological developments and descriptions of clothing help to establish the time as the story moves forward through the decades. When Fermina’s husband dies, Florentino attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.
by Bernardine Evaristo Setting: England, 1905 to Present Day First published 2019
This award-winning novel is told from the point of view of 12 British characters, most of them women of color, as they move through the world in different decades - each just a few degrees of separation apart from each other. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, and despite the overlaps between their stories, the characters are vastly different in their backgrounds, their experiences, and the choices they make.
by Susan Jane Gilman Setting: New York, 1910s - 1980s First published 2014
While fleeing Russia in 1913, young Malka Treynovsky is determined to get her family to the United States - the land of opportunity and dreams. After arriving via Ellis Island, her visions of a better life and quickly tattered when the Lower East Side isn’t easy to survive as a Russian Jewish family. Over the next 70 years, Malka transforms herself into Lillian Dunkle, "The Ice Cream Queen." She creates her own empire, and her story involves notable moments throughout American history.
While her public persona as the Ice Cream Queen seems endearing, it’s largely a facade for a more complex, less-likeable woman who was shaped by the challenges of her childhood.
The Book Girls Say...Melissa loves stories that span a lifetime so you can see the evolution of characters and how decisions are impacted by past events. This book is no exception. It’s also a realistic look at immigration in the 1910s and daily life for new immigrants in Manhattan.
by Min Jin Lee Setting: Japan and Korea, 1910-1989 First published 2017
In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja meets a wealthy man near her seaside home in Korea and becomes pregnant, only to discover that the man is married. He attempts to buy her off, but she instead accepts an offer of another man and follows him to Japan, where they are discriminated against both for being Korean and Christian.
Sunja's decision to to leave her home, and to reject her son's powerful father, sets the stage for this epic novel that follows four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family in 20th-century Japan. It is both a history of this family, as well as a political history of the relationship between Japanese and Koreans throughout the 1900s.
by Melanie Benjamin Setting: US and Europe, 1920-1960s First published 2013
This historical fiction novel traces the life of Anne Morrow, who was a shy college senior the first time she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh shortly after his famed 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Their wedding made headlines, but that was just the beginning. In the following years, Anne was the first woman in the US to become a licensed glider pilot and one of the first licensed radio operators, but despite her intelligence and accomplishments she remained known as just the “aviator’s wife.”
Throughout the decades the Lindberghs’ marriage took them to new highs but also included devastating lows, including the tragic kidnapping of their first son and Charles’ affairs. Through it all, the Lindbergh’s became fodder for the earliest paparazzi.
by Michael Cunningham Setting: LA, NYC, England, 1920s, 1940s, 1990s First published 2000
The Hours is a modern retelling of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway that incorporates Woolf as one of three characters in an overlapping story. As you read, you’ll travel between Woolf in 1920s London, a mother in 1940s suburban LA trying to fit in time to read Mrs. Dalloway, and Clarissa Vaughan in 1990s Manhattan. Each character struggles to reconcile hope and despair in this moving novel.
By Armor Towles Setting: 1922-1954 Moscow, Russia First published 2019
Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat, Rostov has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold outside the hotel's doors.
The Book Girls Say... This one is high on our want to read list because the reviews all rave about the gorgeously descriptive language and the extremely satisfying ending.
by C.W. Gortner Setting: France, 1920s-1960s First published 2015
Few names are as synonymous with chic glamour as Coco Chanel. However, all your opinions of the woman who created the classic little black dress could change after reading this historical fiction account of her entire life. From her humble beginnings as an orphan to her determination to keep her atelier afloat during WW2, this book details the decisions that lead to her lasting name-recognition.
The Book Girls Say...Melissa was fascinated by Coco Chanel’s changing position in life throughout this book, along with several other surprising aspects like her relationship with the Nazis as they invaded Paris. It’s well-researched and largely biographical but told in novel form.
by Margot Lee Shetterly Setting: Hampton, Virginia, 1930s-1960s First published 2016
This is a remarkable non-fiction account of the Black female mathematicians - known as “human computers” - that helped make possible some of America’s greatest achievements that launched first rockets, and then astronauts.
While brilliant Black women were originally relegated to teaching math in segregated public schools, many of these women suddenly found new opportunities open to them when the aeronautics industry suffered labor shortages during WWII and was in dire need of anyone who possessed high level math skills. This book interweaves the stories of four African American women who answered the call, and, over the course of three decades - from WWII, through the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Space Race - participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes.
The Book Girls Say... The book is always better than the movie (of course), and this book is amazing! But we also highly recommend that you watch the movie after reading Hidden Figures. While the film covers only the slice of time leading up to NASA’s Mercury 7 launch, it does an excellent job of portraying the challenges these brilliant woman faced crossing both gender and racial barriers in an era where their field was not only dominated by men, but where Jim Crow laws also enforced both segregation and discrimination against African Americans.
by Anne Glenconner Setting: England, 1930s-1980s First published 2019
Even the juiciest Hollywood tell-alls have nothing on this royal memoir from Anne Glenconner, who was a friend and official Lady in Waiting to Princess Margaret.
The book covers her full life to date, from teenage years through her late 80s. While Princess Margaret is involved in some of the stories, the book is not directly focused on the royal family. Instead, it's all about Anne's unbelievable life, which was marked by both incredible privilege and extreme tragedy that overlaps some of the major events of the 20th century, including the war on drugs and the AIDs epidemic.
The Book Girls Say... We highly recommend listening to this one as an audio book because Anne Glenconner narrates it herself and her proper British voice adds magic to the unbelievable stories. But a word of warning... Don't listen with your kiddos around. Some of the stories go from innocent to risqué with no warning.
by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Setting: Rural North Carolina, 1941-1987 First published 2019
Azalea “Knot” Centre loves moonshine, literature, and the company of men. But living in the rural African American town of West Mills, North Carolina in the early 1940s, this lifestyle is not held in high regard. In her 20s, Knot discovers that she’s pregnant and the father has left town for the military. Ostracized from her relatives and cut-off from her hometown, Knot is determined to go it alone. But her neighbor, Otis Lee, is determined to help Knot where he was unable to help his own sister.
Spanning four decades, this is a story of family, friendship, love, and redemption.
by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton Setting: New Orleans, WWII, 1980s, and Present Day First published 2017
This novel traces the legacy of racial disparity in the south through the history of one Creole family. Evelyn’s family inhabits the upper echelon of Black society in New Orleans, but as she comes of age during WWII, she finds herself facing a choice between her life of privilege and her true love.
Forty years later, in the 1980s, Evelyn’s daughter, Jackie, is a frazzled single mother with an absent, drug-addicted husband. When he returns, she is forced to decide whether to take him back in hopes of regaining their old life, while risking that he’ll walk out again.
Fast forward again, and Jackie’s son, T.C., has reinvented himself after Hurricane Katrina, and following a short stint in prison for possession with the intent to distribute marijana.
For Evelyn, Jim Crow is an ongoing reality, and in its wake, new threats spring up to haunt her descendants.
The Book Girls Say... If you have an Audible membership, this book is currently available free.
by Clint Hill Setting: Washington DC, 1950s-1970s First published 2016
In this memoir, Clint Hill reflects on his seventeen years on the White House Secret Service detail under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, shedding light on the personalities of five of the most powerful men in the world, and giving a unique insider perspective on many historical events of the 50s, 60s and 70s.
The Book Girls Say… Clint Hill also wrote another memoir - Ms. Kennedy and Me - about his time as Jackie Kennedy’s personal secret service agent throughout her years as First Lady. Both of Hill's memoirs are vivid and insightful without feeling gossipy, and he provides an in depth look at the politics of the day without feeling political.
by Taylor Jenkins Reid Setting: Hollywood, 1950s-1980s First published 2017
In this novel, Taylor Jenkins Reid focuses on a fictional old Hollywood icon instead of a fictional rock band. Evelyn Hugo lived a glamorous and scandalous life, but doesn't like to talk about it and has become reclusive after leaving her career.
When she's finally ready to document her past at the end of her life, she selects a journalist and details her life from the 1950-1980s, which included seven husbands along the way.
The Book Girls Say... We both really enjoyed this one and rated it a solid 4 stars.
by Jennifer Weiner Setting: Detroit, 1950s to Present First published 2019
Jo and Bethie grew up in the 1950s in Detroit in a picture perfect house, each with a clearly defined role in their family. Jo is the bookish tomboy with a strong sense of fairness, and Bethie is the good girl who enjoys the power that comes from her beauty. But through the decades... Jo and Bethie are the authors own take on Little Woman's Jo and Beth.
by Barbara Kingsolver Setting: Congo, Africa, 1959-1990s First published 2005
In 1959, a fiery evangelical Baptist preacher takes his family and mission to the Congo intent on "enlightening" the savages. The story is narrated by his wife and four daughters, one of whom is disabled but more aware than anyone realizes. Spanning the following four decades, the book is both a portrait of a family and the Congo society eager to cast off its colonial chains. With beautifully descriptive writing and well developed characters, this book examines issues of American Christianity's effect on the Africans, as well as the effect of the African culture on the family.
The Book Girls' Say... We've loved some of Barbara Kingsolver novels, and this one set in Africa is high on our list after receiving unanimous five star reviews from the friends we trust most.
by Edward Kelsey Moore Setting: Indiana, 1960-2000s First published 2013
Three friends - dubbed "The Supremes" by pals - have been meeting at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat diner in Plainview, Indiana since their high school days in the tumultuous 1960s. For more than four decades, they've been by each others side through lifes up and downs. This books has been described as The Help meets Fried Green Tomatoes with a dash of Steel Magnolias.
by Stieg Larsson Setting: Sweden, 1960s-2002 First published 2005
When the teenager from a wealthy family disappears in 1966, her uncle is determined to find out what happened to her. For forty years, he wonders what really happened. Nearing the end of his life, he hires a disgraced investigative journalist to help him uncover the truth. Combing murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international bestseller.
WARNING: We haven’t read this one yet, but some reviewers warn of graphic scenes including sexual assault.
by Chloe Benjamin Setting: United States, 1969-2010s First published 2018
In 1969, four siblings from the Gold family sneak out to see a traveling psychic who has arrived in the Lower East Side. She claims to be able to tell each person when they will die, and her fortunes impact the decisions of the siblings over the next five decades. From becoming a Las Vegas magician to an Army doctor, the children grow up to have vastly different lives, but all struggle with the line between destiny and choice in their own way.
by David Nicholls Setting: Various locations, 1988-Present Day First published 2010
On their graduation day in Edinburgh, July 15th, 1988, Emma and Dexter meet for the first time. Although they set out in different directions the next day, each chapter checks in on their friendship on July 15th each subsequent year. The book spans 20 years of ups and downs in their individual lives and relationship with each other.
The Book Girls Say... If you loved the yearly updates in 28 Summers, this would be a good pick!
by Elin Hillenbrand Setting: 1993-2020, Nantucket First published 2020
In 1993, Mallory inherits a beach cottage in Nantucket and decides to embrace the unexpected gift and move to the island full-time. Shortly after, she hosts a bachelor party for her brother and meets his friend from college, Jake.
After things go wrong for other attendees, Mallory and Jake are left alone for the rest of the weekend. They have undeniable chemistry and after watching the classic movie, Same Time Next Year, they decide that they'll continue getting together one weekend every summer, no matter what.
As the title suggests, the book spans 28 years of these secret meetings, one chapter per year from 1993-2020. You'll keep the pages turning to find out how their lives change individually and together each year as Mallory and Jake go from college through career and through love and loss. The chapters each start with a fun recap of what was happening in the world each year, and you'll be transported through time as their lives move forward.
The Book Girls Say... This was a 5 star read for both of us! Just keep the Kleenex ready for the ending.