The Most Popular Book Club Historical Fiction of 2023

The Most Popular Book Club Historical Fiction of 2023

Most Popular Book Club Historical Fiction of 2023

Historical fiction is often a well-loved genre for book clubs. It allows members to learn more about a particular time and place at their leisure while enjoying the twists and turns of a good story and sharing it with others.

We’ve already published the results of our most recent annual survey showing the Top 10 book club books of 2023, but how did historical novels fare? Below are the works of fiction set in past eras that book club members took the most pleasure in discussing.

The Most Popular Historical Fiction for Book Clubs in 2023 (with Pub Year)

The above information is based on a February 2024 survey of BookBrowse email subscribers. Only subscribers were eligible to take part so as to prevent the ratings being skewed by enthusiastic fan bases. Respondents were asked to name up to three favorites that they discussed in a book group setting in 2023; 3268 votes were cast.

The popularity of historical fiction is already evident by its presence in our general Top 10. Six of the ten, led by Lessons in Chemistry from Bonnie Garmus and Horse from Geraldine Brooks, are historical novels, leaving room for four more favorites. Filling the 7th and 8th place spots in a tie are Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray’s The Personal Librarian, the story of Belle da Costa Greene, who hid her identity as a Black woman while working as J.P. Morgan’s librarian in the early 20th century, and Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway, which follows a spontaneous series of road trip adventures undertaken by a pair of brothers in the 1950s. These two titles also made our overall Top 10 of 2022, taking the #4 and #2 spots respectively.

Trust by Hernan Diaz, coming in at #9, is a metafictional feast of a novel featuring four accounts of a wealthy couple living in 1920s New York. Along with The Personal Librarian and Towles’ novel, this work gives readers a unique glimpse into American history, and provides food for thought on the nature of truth and perspective.

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, sliding in at #10, sweeps us away in another direction entirely. Set in 16th-century Italy, it relates a high-tension, alternate version of the story of the real Lucrezia de’ Medici, daughter of a Grand Duke of Tuscany, in which she attempts to foil her husband’s plans to murder her.

As with our general Top 10 list, it’s important to remember that there are book groups for every possible reading interest, and there are so many exceptional books to choose from that this Top 10 list represents only the very tip of the iceberg.

Check out all of these historical gems in more detail below!

Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel
by Bonnie Garmus

Hardcover Apr 2022. 400 pages
Published by Doubleday

Bonnie Garmus’s debut, Lessons in Chemistry, introduces readers to an exceptional woman struggling to succeed in a male-dominated field. Garmus sets her novel in the days before the Equal Rights Amendment and the #MeToo movement, when most men — and many women as well — believed that any woman who dared to enter a traditional men’s profession was either “a lightweight or a gold digger,” in the author’s words. One might assume the novel is a dark, weighty exploration of the sexual discrimination rampant during the 1950s and early 1960s. Amazingly, it’s really not; although the book’s substance depends largely on this theme, its overall tone is positive and affirming. (Kim Kovacs) 

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Horse: A Novel
by Geraldine Brooks

Paperback Jan 2024. 464 pages
Published by Penguin Books

Winner of the 2022 BookBrowse Fiction Award

Geraldine Brooks creates a powerful backstory for 19th-century thoroughbred racehorse Lexington, weaving a rich tapestry of historical and current-day narratives that aptly reflect how the legacy of slavery still ripples through America. The historic underpinnings of the work are as spellbinding as the characters. Whether Brooks is chronicling the history of thoroughbred racing, exploring the impact of the Civil War on African American jockeys, or detailing the nuances of American equestrian art, it is all equally engrossing. (Jane McCormack) 

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The Covenant of Water

The Covenant of Water
by Abraham Verghese

Hardcover May 2023. 736 pages
Published by Grove Press

Winner of the 2023 BookBrowse Fiction Award

Along the Malabar Coast of South India in 1900, a 12-year-old girl grieving her father’s death sets off to a rambling estate called Parambil to marry a man almost 30 years her senior. As the years go by and she bears a child, her stepson JoJo calls her Big Ammachi (“Big Little Mother”), and the name sticks. She becomes the matriarch and mainstay of a family with a peculiar affliction, one she refers to as the “Condition.” Verghese sustains this massive story with numerous enigmatic and vividly drawn characters. However, running like a riptide beneath the waters of the Malabar Coast, the Condition strikes the family in new, unbidden and heartbreaking ways. It will reach a crescendo with Mariamma, Big Ammachi’s granddaughter, who becomes a neurosurgeon to unlock the secrets of this affliction, only to face the secrets “that can bind them together or bring them to their knees when revealed.” (Peggy Kurkowski) 

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West with Giraffes

West With Giraffes: A Novel
by Lynda Rutledge

Feb 2021. 372 pages
Published by Lake Union Publishing

Woodrow Wilson Nickel, age 105, feels his life ebbing away. But when he learns giraffes are going extinct, he finds himself recalling the unforgettable experience he cannot take to his grave.

It’s 1938. The Great Depression lingers. Hitler is threatening Europe, and world-weary Americans long for wonder. They find it in two giraffes who miraculously survive a hurricane while crossing the Atlantic. What follows is a twelve-day road trip in a custom truck to deliver Southern California’s first giraffes to the San Diego Zoo. Behind the wheel is the young Dust Bowl rowdy Woodrow. 

Part adventure, part historical saga, and part coming-of-age love story, West with Giraffes explores what it means to be changed by the grace of animals, the kindness of strangers, the passing of time, and a story told before it’s too late.

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The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store: A Novel
by James McBride

Hardcover Aug 2023. 400 pages
Published by Riverhead Books

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride takes place in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, primarily within the confines of a real-life settlement called Chicken Hill, during the racially contentious 1930s. Chicken Hill’s population was largely Jewish and Black, and included Irish, Italian, and Greek immigrants. It was a place where all types of people, united by impoverished circumstances, “pretty much got along,” as McBride explains in an interview with NPR, which inspired him to recreate the congenial relationships between his characters. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store shows readers that it is possible to connect with people who are radically different from you without relinquishing the things unique to your own experience. Love bursts from the pages of McBride’s novel, shining its golden light on the miracles we can accomplish as a community. (Abby Edgecumbe) 

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Lady Tan's Circle of Women

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women: A Novel
by Lisa See

Paperback Jun 11, 2024. 368 pages
Published by Scribner

According to Confucius, “an educated woman is a worthless woman,” but Tan Yunxian—born into an elite family, yet haunted by death, separations, and loneliness—is being raised by her grandparents to be of use. Her grandmother is one of only a handful of female doctors in China, and she teaches Yunxian the pillars of Chinese medicine, the Four Examinations—looking, listening, touching, and asking—something a man can never do with a female patient.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a captivating story of women helping other women. It is also a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.

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The Personal Librarian

The Personal Librarian
by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray

Paperback Jun 2022. 352 pages
Published by Berkley Books

I came to love the heroine’s balance of professional chutzpah and vulnerable heart (Jessamyn R). Belle da Costa Greene was, historically, a very powerful woman and yet has never crossed my radar. The authors describe a woman of great intelligence, style and depth one can never know enough about (Carole A). This portrayal of the diminutive (in stature only) Greene and her ability to navigate a purely (white) man’s world with her wit, tenacity and intelligence is unforgettable (Patricia L).  

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The Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway: A Novel
by Amor Towles

Paperback Mar 2023. 592 pages
Published by Penguin Books

Winner of the 2021 BookBrowse Fiction Award

Things look bleak for Emmett Watson in June of 1954. He and his eight-year-old brother, Billy, will soon be homeless, with the bank giving them three weeks to clear out. Luckily, Emmett still has his pride and joy, his 1948 Studebaker, as well as a cash inheritance from his father. Grateful for the excuse to get away from Nebraska, he intends to light out for Texas to flip houses. Billy has another idea: taking the continent-spanning Lincoln Highway to find their mother in San Francisco — the last place she mailed a postcard from after she disappeared eight years ago. The Lincoln Highway features some fantastic characters. Precocious Billy steals every scene he appears in. There is something appealing about the conjunction of bravery and mischief, and it’s reassuring how the novel comes full circle and promises further adventures ahead. (Rebecca Foster) 

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by Hernan Diaz

Paperback May 2023. 416 pages
Published by Riverhead Books

Hernan Diaz’s Trust is a work of fiction that is itself comprised of four very different works existing in the world of its story. Bonds is a novel published in the 1930s about Benjamin Rask, who increased his fortune playing the 1920s stock market before his wife Helen’s madness and death. Next is an unfinished autobiography by Andrew Bevel, on whom Benjamin Rask was unashamedly based—he wants to correct the story about him and his late wife, Mildred. The third section is a memoir by Bevel’s secretary, Ida Partenza, a Brooklynite whose father is a bombastic, anarchic Italian immigrant. The last section is Mildred’s, and the best. The novel is like a feminist retelling of a classic, male-oriented story, except that the original story is also one that Diaz wrote. Look at what is missing from these accounts, he implores us. Who do you believe? (Chloe Pfeiffer) 

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The Marriage Portrait

The Marriage Portrait: A Novel
by Maggie O’Farrell

Paperback Jul 2023. 352 pages
Published by Vintage

The book begins with Lucrezia’s realization that her husband means to murder her while they’re at a remote castle. The story then loops back through her childhood and adolescence, with chapters periodically jumping to her in the castle trying to avoid her husband’s violent intentions. The structure gives the book the feel of a murder mystery — Will he or won’t he do it? What is he capable of? — and the simmering undercurrents of danger draw the reader in, enveloping us in Lucrezia’s fear and confusion, but also her intelligence and bravery. By shortening the distance between Lucrezia’s lifetime and our own, O’Farrell also makes the risks of succession and reproduction patently clear for modern readers. She provides a glimpse of the terror, pride, hope, danger and sometimes affection that marriage entailed for early modern women, all within an exciting and fast-paced tale. (Rose Rankin) 

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