With its jagged hills, eccentric characters and iconic landmarks, San Francisco is one of the world’s most recognizable cities. According to a recent analysis of popular book settings, novelists play an important role in keeping the city in the spotlight—San Francisco is the fourth most popular U.S. setting for fiction writers.
Now we bring you a list of some of the best novels and memoirs set in San Francisco—all of which would make great holiday gifts.
Isabel Allende’s historical novel, Daughter of Fortune, begins in Chile, where the English-educated orphan Eliza Sommers falls in love with clerk Joaquín Andieta—who is determined to make something more of his life. When gold is discovered in Northern California, they travel there together. Sommers meets a Chinese doctor named Tao Chi’en, who becomes her savior in a seedy city rife with single men.
Many people know The Maltese Falcon, a classic of film noir starring Humphrey Bogart. But they might not realize that the film is based off of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel by the same name. Hammett invented Detective Sam Spade and sent him crawling all over San Francisco—including the Stockton Tunnel, John’s Grill and the Palace Hotel—in search of a jewel-encrusted bird statue. The plot may leave you scratching your head, but its vivid descriptions of the city are simply unforgettable.
I’ll never forget Maya Angelou’s depiction of San Francisco’s Fillmore in her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Before the city razed the neighborhood, destroying the heart of the “Harlem of the West,” it was home to a thriving Japanese community. Traveling through Angelou’s San Francisco with her—from the Timothy Pflueger-designed George Washington High School to the streetcars she operated—reminds me of how much the city has changed and yet how much remains the same.
Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club follows the journey of Lily Hu, who begins exploring her sexuality at a Chinatown lesbian bar with her friend Kathleen. A story of first queer love against an authentic historical backdrop of 1950s San Francisco, this book is so perfect for right now.
Near the end of his life, author Ken Kesey said he continued to enjoy microdoses of LSD. But back when Tom Wolfe was chronicling Kesey in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the countercultural icon and his band of Merry Pranksters were regularly dropping what would more accurately be described as heroic doses of the drug. And that wasn’t all they were taking—not by a long shot. This seminal work of New Journalism is essential reading for anyone trying to get a sense of late ’60s psychedelic San Francisco.
Originally serialized for The San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels have become classics in their own right. Maupin’s zesty writing, zany characters and swift-moving plot sweep you into a soap opera of intersecting lives. If you want even lighter entertainment, catch the Netflix remake that reimagines the story in modern times.
Vendela Vida’s We Run the Tides captures a windswept San Francisco teetering on the edge of Seacliff. It’s not the only jagged edge, as main character Eulabee skates the awkward transition between childhood and young adulthood. Deftly written with characters and setting that pulls you in, Vida’s sixth novel is worth curling up with in a cozy armchair on a rainy San Francisco day.
As a co-founder of 826 Valencia, Dave Eggers is a local legend who continuously gives back to the literary community. He’s also an author in his own right. His debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), is part memoir, part fabrication—detailing Eggers’ move to California with his 8-year-old brother after his mother and father die barely a month apart. Reading about a newly orphaned young man who is thrust into the role of parent is just as heartbreaking more than two decades later.
When main character Clay gets booted from his dead-end tech job, he takes on a stint at an all-night bookstore in North Beach as a last-ditch resort. While some of the novel’s tropes can feel a bit hackneyed, Robin Sloan pulls off a literary thriller with Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore that keeps you turning pages thanks to his crisp characters and bright writing.
Tommy Orange’s debut novel There There offers a chorus of Native voices, deftly weaving together the experiences of 12 “urban Indians” in a sharp-witted portrayal that explores what it means to endure a blood-soaked history. The stirring urgency of the novel—filled with phrases that cleave the heart and tension that builds to boiling—prod you forward to the culminating powwow in which all the characters intersect with disastrous consequences.
California incarcerates so many people (in a nation with the largest number of prisoners) that it’s been called the “Golden Gulag” by some writers. Rachel Kushner’s novel The Mars Room gives readers a fictional glance into that world, with characters and settings so real you wonder if Kushner herself has been imprisoned. This is a book that stuck with me long after reading it and forever changed how I saw the world.
Chanel Miller’s impact statement after being sexually assaulted by Brock Turner instantly went viral on BuzzFeed, where she was known only as Emily Doe. With her memoir, Know My Name, she identifies herself and shares the labyrinthine journey that a sexual assault survivor endures both in society and the criminal justice system. All this would be worthy enough, but pair that with Chanel’s breathtaking writing (I will not until the end of my days forget that scuba diving scene), and you have absolute magic.
You might not recognize the Bay Area in Philip K. Dick’s dystopian science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it’s there all the same: “Here had been the suburbs of San Francisco, a short ride by monorail rapid transit; the entire peninsula had chattered like a bird tree with life and opinions and complaints.” The inspiration for the cult classic film Blade Runner, Dick’s slim novel is a somber reminder of what the future could look like.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at email@example.com