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Explore all the best non-fiction and fiction books set in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — from a local! It’s an impactful reading list that, I can personally attest is representative of the real place. You’re bound to learn something new about my historic home here. Let’s get literary!

long bright river by liz moore in front of mural in philadelphia.

Top 3 Best Books Set in Philadelphia

TOP 3 PHILLY BOOKS

THE DUTCH HOUSE: an award-winning bestseller and my favorite book of 2019; a powerful family saga about sibling love

LONG BRIGHT RIVER: (best book about Kensington, Philadelphia) a bestselling Good Morning America book club pick; a thriller with a social conscience about the opioid epidemic that makes a lasting impact

THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE: a bestselling, Barack Obama favorite that offers a love-affirming story of the power of community that makes your heart both break and swell

Details on the Top Fiction and Non-Fiction Books Set in Philadelphia

As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

Best for fans of historical fiction

As Bright As Heaven is a fictional novel set in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. It tells the story of a family reborn through loss and love.

Pauline Bright and her husband came to Philadelphia filled with hope that they could give their three daughters a chance at a better life.

But after their arrival, the Spanish Flu reaches America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their city, they find their lives turned upside down. Amidst tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.


Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action

Best for fans of memoirs and medical miracles

  • Los Angeles Times and Publisher’s Weekly bestseller

Chasing My Cure is an absolutely mind-blowing and awe-inducing bestselling memoir that takes place in Philadelphia. Dr. David Fajgenbaum was a collegiate athlete known as “The Beast” when his mother died of brain cancer and he began a national campus grief program for students.  

Later, David studies cancer at Oxford in England and medical school at Philly’s University of Pennsylvania. When he starts feeling ill, what results is a multi-year battle against a rare condition called Castleman’s Disease. It’s somewhere between cancer and auto-immune disease.

Amidst years of relapses and several near-death experiences, he decides “to put hope into action” and chases a cure to save his own life and allow him to start a family, his most fervent dream. So, he gets an MBA at Wharton in Philadelphia to work on mixing business with his biomedical research.  

Today, he is years in remission, and his is the rawest and most real love story I have ever read. Dr. Fajgenbaum is a real-life hero.


Crossing the Line by Kareem Rosser

Best for fans of sports memoirs

Crossing the Line is the non-fiction memoir of the captain of the first all-black squad to win the National Interscholastic Polo championship. Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Rosser thought his family would forever be impoverished and surrounded by violence.

But, when the Rosser brothers discover a barn full of horses in the city’s Fairmount Park, the owner offers them riding lessons in exchange for after-school work. The brothers become passionate about the sport of polo and pursue it with dedication.

As Rosser strives for athletic success against the odds, he must also keep the family together.


The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Best for fans of character-driven novels and literary fiction

  • Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
  • New York Times bestseller
  • Named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, The Washington Post, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real SimpleGood Housekeeping, Vogue, Refinery29, TIME Magazine, and Buzzfeed
  • The Today Show’s book club pick

The Dutch House was my favorite book of the past several years! Family drama novels are my favorite genre, and this particular book exceeded my expectations as a character-driven novel, especially as the audio version was read by the incomparable actor, Tom Hanks.

In The Dutch House, the Conroy family is forever changed when they move into a suburban Philadelphia home. Danny and Maeve are left to fend for themselves, and Maeve becomes a mother-like figure to Danny. They journey through decades of their lives, on occasion re-visiting The Dutch House.

Hanks breathtakingly captures the narrator, Danny, who tells the decades-long story of his life and his family, particularly of his sister Maeve, who is so beautifully featured on the cover art. It’s a “must listen” and one of my favorite audiobooks of all time.

Related Posts: Review of The Dutch House | Book Club Questions for The Dutch House


The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

Best for fans of character-driven literary fiction

  • Instant New York Times bestseller and notable book
  • Barnes & Noble’s Book of the Year
  • A best book of the year by NPR/Fresh Air, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Time Magazine
  • One of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is known as a “love-affirming” character-driven novel about the power of community.

The plot is simple: In a suburban Pottstown, Philadelphia, neighborhood in 1926, immigrant Jews and African Americans peacefully co-exist. A young, deaf, and orphaned boy named Dodo is institutionalized at a local asylum (Pennhurst). So, his Jewish Chicken Hill neighbors and extended African American family members plan to rescue him.  

The characters and the themes (religion, racism, disability, and more) are abundant. The story is teased out by describing both the townspeople and famous people of the time to show how they affect each others’ lives. The novel also regularly compares and contrasts Chicken Hill to Philadelphia.

It makes your heart both break and swell, and it leaves you with the kind of book hangover only the most meaningful books can. It’s one of the most well-written books I’ve read — ever.

Related Posts: The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store Characters | The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store Book Club Questions


In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner

Best for fans of sibling stories and “Chick Lit”

In Her Shoes is a memorable novel about sisters. Rose is a Philadelphia attorney with a guilty pleasure for romance novels, and she dreams of meeting Mr. Right. She also desperately wants her messed up and only partially employed little sister, Maggie, to get her life in order.

Maggie is a stunner who dreams of fame and fortune. The only commonality they share is the same size feet.

After Maggie moves in with Rose due to financial circumstances, they change their own lives and each other’s lives in unexpected ways on their journeys toward self-discovery.

I also highly recommend the movie version of In Her Shoes. It totally delivers on the storyline, characters, and Philadelphia settings!


Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Best for fans of suspense and social narratives

a long bright river of departed souls…

Liz Moore

Long Bright River is one of the best books set in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. It’s a thriller and a page-turner — but with compassion and a social conscience. These thrills aren’t gratuitous at all. They have a purpose. And the characters are complex and multifaceted, not just good or evil.

Mickey, a young female Philadelphia police officer and single mother, searches for her sister, a drug addict, on the streets of Kensington when she goes missing.

These sisters also carry with them their pasts. They were raised by their grandmother after their own mother died of an overdose.

Mickey is dutiful and driven, albeit guarded, and it’s easy to root for her. As the mystery of sister Kacey’s whereabouts unfolds, surprising twists occur. But, the reader also gains a deeper understanding of the longstanding effects of the opioid epidemic and its intersection with the police in Kensington.

It’s one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in thrillers and/or understanding social issues. You walk away with new and different understanding of the issues it presents, and you never forget them.


The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Best for fans of thrillers

  • #1 national bestseller

I still get chills when I think about The Lovely Bones. It seems to be either loved or hated by readers, but it’s a mega-bestseller, and it remains one of my favorite books of all time.

The novel takes place in the Philadelphia suburbs. The first 50 pages are tough: they detail the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young teenage girl.

But, the remainder of the novel details her family’s search for her and her killer as they learn how to live without her. This isn’t a whodunnit, though. It’s more about the family’s grief journey. At times, it is raw, and at times, it is beautiful.

The Lovely Bones reinvigorated my love of reading. When the movie version was filmed in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I even visited the set (a suburban neighborhood where Alice Sebold grew up).

If you can get past the traumatic events of this book and look for the beauty that springs from it, you, too, may love The Lovely Bones.


The Philadelphia Heiriss by Anita Abriel

Best for fans of historical fiction and the Main Line

The Philadelphia Heiress is a well-executed historical fiction novel that transports the reader to the Main Line of suburban Philadelphia in 1927.

There, Helen is fascinated by cows, but she is forced to marry a wealthy aspiring author after her father jeopardizes the family’s wealth and status.

Her husband, obsessed in his own right with the literary giants of the age, causes strife in their own marriage.

In the vein of A Room With a View, the novel explores the notions of marriage and self-fulfillment at the time. It does so with an abundance of historic Philadelphia area references readers will still recognize today, focusing on Main Line attractions.


The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Best for fans of dystopian women’s fiction

  • Longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel and the 2023 Carnegie Medal for Excellence
  • Shortlisted for The Center for Fiction 2022 First Novel Prize
  • One of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2022
  • New York Times bestseller
  • Today show Read with Jenna Book Club pick

The School for Good Mothers is littered with Philadelphia references, but boy, is it one dark and disturbing book! I recommend it to fans of books like The Handmaid’s Tale who are fully prepared to be shocked by the content.

Frida is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and she’s feeling unworthy of their sacrifices in her work and personal life, particularly as a newly single mom. One day, she mistakenly leaves her daughter at home.

Unfortunately, the state watches mothers like her and she must prove herself as a fit and loving mom.

This book tackles an array of issues many women and mothers face today, but it does so in uniquely raw and intense ways. Buckle up!


The Sicilian Inheritance by Jo Piazza

Best for book clubs

  • National bestseller

The Sicilian Inheritance is based on a true crime story in the author’s own family history, and, for those who like to indulge in a full multimedia experience, she released a corresponding podcast (of the same name) about it.

The death of one Philadelphian’s beloved Aunt Rosie brings her to Sicily, where she comes to investigate the possible murder of her feisty great-grandmother there, all the while her husband worked in Pennsylvania.

While primarily set in Italy, it’s written by a Philadelphian and loaded with lots of fun Philly references to uncover.

I recommend it for book clubs or for a book you can’t go wrong with because there’s something for everyone here: historical fiction (with dual timelines), suspense, crime, mystery, romance, strong women, drama, and family.


The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Best for fans of modern fiction

  • New York Times bestseller

In The Silver Linings Playbook, Pat Peoples has just been released from years in a mental facility and heads home. He believes his life is a movie produced by God, and, if he just becomes more physically fit and emotionally literate, God will ensure that his estranged wife returns to him.

Now that he’s home, though, no one will talk to him about his wife. And his beloved Philadelphia Eagles are losing. When the Eagles lose, no one is happy and sometimes even violence ensues.

Along the way, though, he meets a woman named Tiffany who gives him a new lease on life.

The movie version of The Silver Linings Playbook is a great adaptation as well, with some classic Philly scenes and moments.


Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Best for fans of Black Lives Matter books and modern narratives

  • A Best Book of the Year: The Washington PostChicago Tribune, NPR, Vogue, Elle, Real Simple, InStyle, Good Housekeeping, Parade, Slate, Vox, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, BookPage
  • Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize
  • Instant New York Times bestseller
  • A Reese Witherspoon book club pick

Such a Fun Age is such a fun book! The story is about a young African American woman in Philadelphia who is a babysitter for a wealthy white woman’s child in the wealthy neighborhood of Washington Square Park. 

After the young woman is accused of kidnapping the child in a grocery store, the characters’ lives intersect in ways you won’t see coming. Themes of race, class, and youth are developed.

Somehow, these difficult, longstanding issues feel fresh in this modern book.  I especially liked how it also tackled issues new college graduates face, including health insurance problems. It was really impactful and deserving of the attention the author gave it.

So many events in this book make you think, “I hadn’t thought of it that way before.” This is one of the most powerful things a book can do.

I flew through the audio version of Such a Fun Age.  The narrator captured the dialogue of very different characters very well, making it both easy to follow and hard to turn off.  I very highly recommend it!


With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Best for fans of Young Adult fiction and strong characters

  • Amazon Editors’ Pick

With the Fire on High was a “Bookstagram Made Me Do It” book for me, and I couldn’t be happier about it! It has become one of my favorite novels set in Philly. 

Emoni is a teen mom in Philadelphia. She’s grappling with motherhood and the decision between college and her passion for cooking amidst the backdrop of a diverse neighborhood.  As with many teen books, her voice is unique, engrossing, and refreshing. She feels like a friend, and it’s impossible not to like her.

I’d say it’s like Teen Mom mixed with your favorite cooking show. There are also diverse high school students and issues reminiscent of the Netflix show Never Have I Ever and a teenage European trip similar to Love & Gelato.

It has excellent Philly references and is an excellent read for all ages.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best book about Kensington, Philadelphia?

Long Bright River by Liz Moore is a fictional thriller set in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. This bestselling Good Morning America book club pick tackles the opioid epidemic and its intersection with the police there.

What new novels are set in Philadelphia?

A few new novels set in Philadelphia include 2023’s The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride and 2022’s The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, a Today Show Book Club pick.

Are there any romance novels set in Philadelphia?

In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner is a popular Philadelphia-based novel about sisters with some romance storylines woven into it.

What are the best novels set in Philadelphia?

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride was Barnes & Noble’s Book of the Year.

Conclusion

These best books set in Philadelphia capture the heart of the City of Brotherly Love. Whether you’re a history buff, a local, or a Philly traveler, these books will transport you to this iconic American city.

SHOP THE POST

To recap and help you decide where to start or what to read next, my top three picks as a local are:

  • The Dutch House: my favorite book in recent years, set in suburban Philadelphia
  • Long Bright River: a bestselling Good Morning America book club pick, set in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood
  • The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store: a love-affirming bestseller that will leave you with a book hangover, set in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and center city Philly
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One Comment

  1. While it may not reside on a best seller’s list (yet), another finely written literary masterpiece set in Philadelphia is an obscure title on published on Amazon, called “Zion’s Falling” by freshman author M. Kier Murdock. It’s not your run-of-the-mill mystery/action adventure novel, it breaks the mold in regards to story-telling.