The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
I didn't pick this one up until after I watched the Hulu series, and I'm so glad I waited because the book was incredible and I think I would have been annoyed at the liberties the filmmakers took with their adaptation of Atwood's most well-known novel.
People constantly talk about how The Handmaid's Tale is "timely", but I have to respectfully disagree. No, I don't think we're on the path to stripping women of all their liberties and treating them like commodities, but I do think that we, as women, are forgetting the hard-won rights that we now possess (reference the "I am not a feminist" movement for an example of this ignorance). More than anything, The Handmaid's Tale reminded me of the progress that we as a society have made, despite recent setbacks (yes, I'm talking about Donald Trump), and it reminded me not to take those privileges for granted.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This novel was everywhere this year, and with good reason. It spans multiple generations of a Korean family from the early 1900's to the 1980's, both in Japanese-occupied Korea and Japan itself. World War II stood out the most prominently to me in the narrative, as, in my experience, it is rarely told from a Korean perspective.
Any plot summary would not do this novel justice, because it is the characters that made it so memorable for me. Lee is a gifted storyteller, and I became deeply invested in the lives of the family because they were (and are) so real to me. I don't remember the last time I discovered an author as brilliant and refreshing as Min Jin Lee, which is why both of her novels made it to this year's top 5.
What Happened by Hillary Clinton
I get that Hillary Clinton is a polarizing figure in American politics, so I highly doubt that anyone who voted for Donald Trump would pick this one up. It's a shame, though, because Clinton's latest work is well thought out and very masterfully done.
Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of complaints that Clinton is just whining about the election and spewing "fake news." I'm confused about this because her tone is gracious and (Dare I say it?) presidential, and her facts are thoroughly researched and backed up.
What Happened brought me much-needed closure after the disappointing 2016 election but, more than that, it helped me resolve to keep fighting for what I believe in during the terrifying age of Donald Trump.
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
I originally gave this novel 4 stars, but after the story stayed with me I had to reconsider. It follows Casey Han, a young Korean-American woman living in New York City during the 1990's. She's sullen, bitter and resentful, but she's also tenacious, intelligent and so utterly real that I couldn't help being fully on her side, even when I disagreed with so many of her choices.
As the daughter of struggling immigrants, Casey differs from me immensely, and I devoured the descriptions of her parents and their Korean-American community because of the love and respect with which Lee has shared this glimpse into a culture that is foreign to me. But I also found myself relating to Casey during the ups and downs of her romantic and professional life. Like Casey, I have been disappointed with my twenties because, somehow, I never quite feel like I've "figured it all out" (Maybe that happens in your thirties?).
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
I had almost written off Thomas Hardy after the disappointment that was Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but I adored this novel. In my opinion, it has everything Tess lacks: an extraordinary heroine, a love interest who deserves her, and an ending that isn't melodramatic and ridiculous.
In all seriousness, though, Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak are two of my favorite fictional characters I've discovered yet, and Hardy's descriptions of rural Victorian life simultaneously broke my heart and had me swooning. This is an excellent choice for fans of the Brontës' love stories and Charles Dickens' social commentary.
It's also worth noting that the film adaptation from 2015 is one of my all-time favorite period pieces.