Reading a great novel set in a new place has always been one of my main reasons for wanting to travel. Whether it’s Thailand or Lagos, Turkey or another planet, these books will refresh your wanderlust, teach you about little known places, and interrogate what it means to be a foreigner in a strange land.
1. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The ultimate expat novel, Tom Ripley wants the idle, rich expat lifestyle so badly he kills for it. Set mainly in Italy, Tom’s psyche is on display as he convinces himself he deserves to be just as carefree and affluent as the American friends he makes. The movie versions just don’t compare. This heart stopping drama will make you root for the bad guy.
2. Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
An entirely compelling novel, main character Mischa moves to Thailand with his girlfriend and soon becomes obsessed with the mysterious suicide of American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, while in a Thai prison, serving a life sentence for murder. The mystery will keep you reading, the descriptions of Thailand and expat life will linger. His descriptions of the way heat affects expats in the hot season are dead-on, and hilarious, and his treatment of the malaise of the expat life is also accurate.
3. Going by Kevin Oderman
Set in Granada, within the backdrop of the AlHambrah, Cy Jacobs is dying of cancer, and wants to keep to himself. Yet he manages to build strong relationships with another American expat and a transgender boy. The ending is sweet and totally just, and the setting will make you want to plan your next trip to Spain.
4. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This book meant a lot to me when I first read during college. At the time, what struck me was how living abroad in the Congo completely changes the trajectory of the four sisters’ lives at the center of this novel. Narrated alternatively by each of the four daughter’s brought there by their preacher father, their time in this place unfolds and then jumps ahead to their adulthood, where we learn the impact of their father’s decision on their adult lives.
5. Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This novel sheds light on America through the tale of Ifemelu, a Nigerian who moves to America for college. Her boyfriend, Obinze, also tells a revealing tale of life as an undocumented worker expat in London. Adichie not only shows us America through fresh eyes, but flashbacks to Ifemelu’s home in Nigeria, and current-day Lagos, will have you interested in this city.
6. The Lovers, by Vendela Veda
A grieving widow heads to Cappadocia, Turkey, to remember to husband and their honeymoon there together, but becomes dangerously entangled in local life. Veda’s writing is lush and internally rich. A beautiful and compelling story that will set off your wanderlust for Turkey.
7. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
This book isn’t just about travel to a new country, but a new planet. An English preacher is chosen to missionize on the planet of ‘Oasis’ at the request of the resident population. Faber’s descriptions of this new planet and the ‘expat’ life that has been set up there by the human population seems totally accurate. The humans he lives alongside are disaffected, broken and looking to escape, like some other expats who’ve stayed on this planet. It takes travel to a whole new level.
8. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
David, a young American man living in Paris is trying to escape his homosexuality. His girlfriend has gone to Spain to think over David’s proposal of marriage, and in the meantime David meets Giovanni, an Italian bartender. This novel is somber, filled with rythmic prose describing David’s self-hatred. There are insightful moments of conversation about American culture and what it means to live in Europe as an American. This novel reveals living abroad as an escape, from oneself and one’s true desires.
9. Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones
Reflecting on her upbringing in Papua New Guinea, Matilda and her peers are taught by the only white man in her village, Mr. Watts. Without much in the way of supplies, Mr Watt teaches through reading Dickens’ Great Expectations. This foreign man in a strange land opens up a new world to these children, especially Matilda. Through Great Expectations, she’s able to deal with the tribal wars that affect her and her village, and understand how to make herself anew. This book is about the affect of a stranger in a strange place on a local girl, and how this relationship changed her life.