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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, February 26

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Book Club Wed Dec 16 2015

Best Chicagoland Novels by Suburb

Earlier this year, I put together a list of the Best Chicago Novels by Neighborhood, tying the city's greatest works of fiction to their geographical settings. But during my research, I wound up with a handful of great books set just outside city limits.

Here is that list, the best novels (and one novel-esque memoir) set in Chicago's suburbs. You may notice most of them were published in just the past 15 years. It's not that no one was writing about Chicago suburbs before 2000 (see The Chicago of Fiction: A Resource Guide for proof), it's just that most of those books are out of print. If I've missed any great still-in-print books set in the suburbs, let me know in the comments.

The Instructions by Adam Levin

Buffalo Grove

The Instructions, Adam Levin (2010). Easily one of the most fascinating novels of the decade, about a messianic ten-year-old boy. The author grew up in Buffalo Grove, and the novel's Jewish day school is a "fictionalized" version of Aptasikic Junior High.


The Confessions of Al Capone, Loren D. Estleman (2013). There's plenty of nonfiction about the life of Chicago's most infamous gangster, but this taut historical novel imagines him close to death in Florida, spilling his secrets to an FBI agent posing as a priest, including his time as the King of Cicero.

The Fugue, Gint Aras (2015). Reviewed in Gapers Block just this week, the book follows a man returning to Cicero after a decade in prison.

Downers Grove

A Good Family, Eric Fassnacht (2015). A multi-generational family dramedy in the vein of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.

The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day


The Black Hour, Lori Rader-Day (2014). Rothbert University is a thinly-veiled stand-in for Northwestern University in Rader-Day's debut mystery about a series of deaths on campus.

Evergreen Park

Hairstyles of the Damned, Joe Meno (2004). A punk-rock bildungsroman that marked the arrival of one of Chicago's great modern writers.

Lake Forest

Ordinary People, Judith Guest (1976). An affluent North Shore family faces not one, but two tragedies. You've probably seen the movie adaptation, directed by Robert Redford and starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey NiffeneggerHer Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger (2009). Mostly set in London, Niffenegger's atmospheric follow-up to The Time Traveler's Wife features several scenes in Lake Forest, where the twins grew up with their mother.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000). It's not a novel, but this memoir by the founder of McSweeny's begins in Lake Forest (with guest appearances by Chicago and Evanston) as Eggers and his siblings deal with the deaths of their parents.


The Making of Zombie Wars, Aleksandar Hemon (2015). The protagonist lives in Lakeview, but his femme fatale Ana lives "way out in Lincolnwood, in a building that looks like a depressing dorm."


Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Leviathan (2011). An experimental novel half-written by the author of The Fault in Our Stars about two very different boys with the same name.

Oak Park

Ballads of Suburbia, Stephanie Kuehnert (2009). Another (brutal) suburban coming-of-age tale, now featuring more drugs and rock'n'roll.

Winnetka and Kenilworth

The Thief Who Came to Dinner, Terrence Lore Smith (1972). An overlooked novel, but the movie adaptation was well-received.

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Pete / December 17, 2015 10:09 AM

Ward Just's An Unfinished Season is largely set in the fictional town of Quarterday, which I think is based on Lincolnshire.

Mario Smario / December 20, 2015 11:14 AM

Andy Wingal grew up in Streamwood, and now lives in a tiny Uptown studio apartment, where he sleeps away the days. At night, he drives "dark tourists" in his bullet-proofed van with tinted windows through the seedy streets of the infamous South Side.

Hope Russell Nunki / December 22, 2015 3:34 PM

Set in Weston, a mash-up of the Tri-Cities named for the property acquired to create Fermilab. The main character works at "The Laboratory." Take one guess which one.

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