The Roaring Twenties come alive in these books about the 1920s, including modern books set in the 1920s and classics from the Jazz Age.
When you think about the Roaring Twenties, flapper girls and speakeasies come to mind. It was the decade sandwiched between two world wars, a time of decadence and change.
For the 2021 Reading Challenge, one of my prompts is to read books set in the 1920s. In many ways, life 100 years ago was completely different than our lives today, but in some ways, things remain just the same.
Today, I’ve put together a list of books about the 1920s. You’ll find something for everyone: fun historical fiction books in the 1920s, nonfiction books on the roaring twenties, and even a few classic 1920s books worth a read.
Historical Fiction Books About the 1920s
In 1926, everything seems to be going well for door-to-door salesman Joe Trace. Until he shoots his teenage lover to death and his wife attacks the corpse at the funeral. One of the best-known modern books set in the 1920s, Jazz is a story about passion, sex, jealousy, murder, and what it means to be human.
If you loved Downton Abbey, you’ll want to check out Kate Morton’s debut novel that takes place between 1914 and 1924. At 14, Grace Hadley becomes a housemaid at Riverton House, a grand estate in England. Looking back at her life, Grace tells of her connection to the glamourous Hartford sisters, Hannah and Emmeline, and the events that lead up to a shocking suicide of an up-and-coming poet.
One of the most intriguing recently published books set in the 1920s is Moreno-Garcia’s historical fantasy. In a small town in 1920s Mexico, Casiopea Tun is too busy working as a maid to enjoy the Jazz Age. When she accidentally unleashes the Mayan god of death, she must accompany him on a cross-country adventure to help him reclaim his throne.
Chloe Gong’s debut young adult novel is a clever retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In 1920s Shanghai, a blood feud between two rival gangs causes chaos in the city. Eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai has returned home to embrace her place as heir to the Scarlet Gang. When a contagion starts sweeping the streets, Juliette must work with her first love, Roma Montagov from the rival gang, to solve the mystery.
M. L. Stedman
After years serving in World War I, Tom Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a small island far off the Australian coast. Tom’s young and vivacious wife enjoys their life on the island until she is beaten down by years of miscarriages and stillbirths. When a baby is discovered washed ashore on a boat carrying a dead man, Tom and Isabel decide to keep her, setting up one of the most heart-wrenching conflicts you’ll ever read.
Selina Lennox is living the high life: partying her way through life while avoiding the paths her parents would have her trod. From the moment he meets her, Selina is all that Lawrence Weston, a penniless painter nowhere near her league, can think about. When Selina falls hard for Lawrence, it seems like a miracle, until tragedy forces Selina to choose between what’s safe and what her heart wants. Spanning two decades, The Glittering Hour is one of the most recent books about 1920s and beyond that will draw you in with its tale of passion and heartache.
On the 19th anniversary of their son’s murder, Lord and Lady Hardcastle throw a party with the same guests as that fateful day long ago. At 11 pm, Evelyn Hardcastle is murdered. In a Groundhog Day-esque fashion, Aidan Bishop must relive this day 8 times, but from the perspective of eight different witnesses. His task: identify Evelyn’s murderer, or do it all over again. Evelyn Hardcastle will throw you into a brilliant game of Clue as you see the same events from multiple viewpoints. Just ignore the why this happening and jump right into the mystery come to life, with plenty of fun twists and turns along the way.
When Mrs. Theresa Marshall, a wealthy Manhattan socialite, falls in love with the young war hero Captain Octavian Rofrano, her understanding with her husband allows her to continue her affair without worrying about the scandal of divorce. Upon her brother’s engagement, she enlists Octavian to help with the wedding traditions, only to have him fall under the spell of her brother’s fiancee. With its love triangle among New York City socialites, A Certain Age has all the decadence you’d expect from novels set in the 1920s.
When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a body buried in her backyard, it sends her on a journey of self-discovery based on a 100-year-old murder. In 1921, Will Tillman lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a town segregated by Jim Crow laws and pervaded by racial violence. A misunderstanding prompts a single violent outburst, propelling Will into the midst of the Tulsa Race Riots. For those interested in YA books set in the 1920s, the themes in Dreamland Burning will reverberate with modern teens.
In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by the Bolsheviks and sentenced to spend the rest of his life on house arrest. Thus the wealthy count is forced to move from his suite at the Metropol, a grand hotel across from the Kremlin, to a servant’s room in the attic. Over the ensuing decades, he witnesses Russia’s tumultuous history from his window and must ponder what it means to be a man of purpose. This glorious novel is one you’ll want to read slowly, savoring every word from the author of Rules of Civility.
Michael Farris Smith
Publishing just days after the copyright for The Great Gatsby expires, Nick is an unofficial prequel to the American classic telling the tale of Nick Carraway’s life before moving to West Egg. Trying to escape the horrors he witnessed while serving in the First World War, Nick sets off on a journey of self-discovery, visiting Paris and New Orleans during the Golden Age.
1920s Books Based on a True Story
In December 1926, the mystery novelist Agatha Christie disappeared. After an 11 day manhunt, the infamous author suddenly reappears, claiming no memory of what happened. Marie Benedict’s new novel imagines Christie’s disappearance as a mind game against her cheating husband. Chapters alternate between Mrs. Christie recounting her life and marriage leading up to that fateful day and Mr. Christie dealing with the fall out of her disappearance, in which he is the prime suspect.
Therese Anne Fowler
At a country club dance, Southern belle Zelda Sayre falls in love with a young and wholly unsuitable army lieutenant, F. Scott Fitzgerald. After he sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, she heads to New York to marry the up-and-coming author and is thrust into a world of instant celebrity. Any list of books on the roaring twenties wouldn’t be complete without this novelization of the lives of two of the most famous individuals of the era.
In 1920, Hadley Richardson had accepted her future life as a spinster when she meets Ernest Hemingway. After a whirlwind courtship and marriage, the Hemingways move to Paris, where they become ensconced in a group of ex-pat writers. The years of fast and hard living begin to wear on the Hemingways leading to a crisis in their marriage.
All the history books about the 1920s probably include a picture of Josephine Baker dancing in Paris in her famous banana skirt. Sherry Jones’s novel chronicles the fascinating history of a woman who became an icon of the Jazz Age. From her childhood poverty in America and her breakout career in Paris to her work with the French Resistance in WWII and her efforts as a Civil Rights activist, Josephine Baker’s Last Dance is a great insight into the life of the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture.
Charles Lindbergh’s solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 kicked off a new era of aviation history and inspired many to follow in his footsteps. Laurie Notaro narrates the little-known story of three women pilots (Elsie, the first Englishwoman to receive a pilot’s license; Mabel, a society darling; and Ruth, a beauty pageant winner) who vied for a place in the history books to become the first woman to cross the Atlantic.
Mitchell James Kaplan
One evening in 1924, Kay Swift witnesses George Gershwin playing “Rhapsody in Blue” at a concert. Thus begins a love affair between a society wife who longs for her own musical career and a young brilliant musician. Kaplan’s novel details the tangled bond between the two composers through the ups and downs of their careers, her loyalty to her husband, and his eventual death from brain cancer.
Nonfiction Books About 1920s
If you are looking for exciting books in the 1920s, you should keep your eye out for this true crime story about the fascinating case of the Osage murders. After discovering oil on their land, the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma were among the richest people in the world at the time. Once the death toll surpasses 24 Osage, the newly created FBI takes up the investigation to expose an alarming conspiracy behind these notorious crimes.
After the Curies discovered the gleaming new element radium, its use exploded throughout the world. Hundreds of girls worked in much-coveted jobs in radium dial factories, known as “shining girls” because they would glow from their exposure to radium dust. When the women began to fall ill and die, they find themselves embroiled in a massive scandal and fight for worker’s rights, all brilliantly detailed in one of the bestselling new books about the 1920s.
Douglas Perry beautifully encapsulates Jazz Age Chicago with his account of the women who inspired the musical Chicago. In 1924, journalist Maureen Watkins was tired of covering the usual women’s topics and instead focused on two women, “Stylish Belva” Gaertner and “Beautiful Beulah” Annan who had each shot her lover. Soon Chicago’s death row was full of copycat murders by women looking for a piece of the fame as a celebrity criminal.
If you are interested in reading books about the 1920s, you can’t miss this biography of the decade. Lucy Moore weaves together the most compelling stories from the Roaring Twenties to give you insight into this decade full of glittering passion and terrifying change. Moore points out that the 1920s was much more than just a period between wars, but an age much like our own.
You can’t have a list of books about the 1920s without mentioning the era of Prohibition. Daniel Okrent’s account showcases the history of drink in America and explains why Prohibition laws were put into place and why they failed. Okrent takes you from Manhattan speakeasies to California vineyards and the halls of Congress to give you a complete history of Prohibition.
In the summer of 1926, the popular East Coast tabloids were solely focused on one event – the race to be the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Four young American swimmers – Gertrude Ederle, Mille Gade, Lillian Cannon, and Clarabelle Barrett – fought each other and the elements in this tale of perseverance and force of will.
Novels From the 1920s
F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel serves as the quintessential work of the Jazz Age. As the narrator enters the world of Long Island’s fabulously wealthy, we meet the mysterious Jay Gatsby and the beautiful Daisy Buchanan. The quintessential example of books from 1920 to 1929, this short but memorable book is one that everyone should read in their lifetime.
Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel is the story of a group of American expatriates in Paris drinking their way through life. Typifying the Lost Generation, you meet the hapless reporter Jake Barnes and the vivacious Lady Brett Ashley. From the streets of Paris to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, Hemingway paints a picture of unrealized love, moral confusion, and lost hope.
Considered Virginia Woolf’s best novel, Mrs. Dalloway chronicles a single day in the life of its titular character. On this particular day, Clarissa Dalloway is preparing to host a party that evening. As she works on her preparations, her mind wanders as she reexamines her past choices against her present realities.
E. M. Forster
When Adela Quested and her elderly companion Mrs. Moore arrive in India, they are put off by prejudiced English society. Instead, they set off to see the “real India” under the guidance of Dr. Aziz, a charming Indian Muslim. But an incident in a cave sets off a scandal with the respectable doctor at its center in this novel about India during English imperialism.
One of the best known satirical books about the 1920s, Babbitt is Sinclair Lewis’s statement against the inanity of middle-class life in America. George Babbitt, a successful realtor, spends his life working hard to increase his income and earn more modern conveniences, highlighting the mediocrity of America’s consumer society.
When talking about literature in the 1920s, I can’t help but mention Virginia Woolf twice. To the Lighthouse is a novel not of plot but of introspection. The novel describes the Ramsay family and their visits to the Island of Skye in Scotland over ten years, highlighting the complex relationships inherent in family life.
William Faulkner’s best known novel details the fall of the Compson family, Southern aristocrats in Jefferson, Mississippi, whose family is beginning to break up. Over thirty years, the family meets financial ruin, loses its reputation and many of its members die tragically.
What books about the 1920s are you most interested in reading?