Explore all the best non-fiction and fiction books set in Philadelphia — from a local! I’m proud to see such impactful books based in Philly, where I live, and I hope they impact your lives as well.
First, if you’re extra curious or in a rush, below is a quick, shoppable list of all the books that made the list.
Details on the Best 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, and 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 and, 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.
I have repeatedly heard that As Bright As Heaven is one of the best books about Philadelphia, and it is on my Kindle waiting to be read.
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.
Flash forward and David is studying cancer both at Oxford in England and medical school at Philly’s University of Pennsylvania. When he starts feeling unwell, what results is a multi-year battle against a rare condition called Castleman’s Disease, which is 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 UPenn’s Wharton to work on mixing business with biomedical research.
Today, he is 5+ years in remission and is working to cure COVID. Oh, and did I mention Dr. Fauci even consulted on his case? YES, THIS IS ALL REAL.
It has similar themes of “doctor as patient” as When Breath Becomes Air. It’s as shocking as Educated. And, it’s the rawest and most real love story I have ever read. This is one of the best books set in Philadelphia because Dr. Fajgenbaum is a real-life local hero.
Crossing the Line by Kareem Rosser
Best for fans of sports memoirs
Crossing the Line is the memoir of the captain of the first all-black squad to win the National Interscholastic Polo championship. Being 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
- A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
- TIME Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2019
- Named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, The Washington Post, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Vogue, Refinery29, 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 TOM HANKS.
Hanks breathtakingly captured the narrator Danny, who tells the decades-long story of his life and his family in this book based in Philly, but more particularly, of his sister Maeve, who is so beautifully featured on the cover art. The Dutch House is a “must listen” and one of my favorite audiobooks of all time.
In The Dutch House, the Conroy family is forever changed when they move into “The Dutch House” outside of Philadelphia. Without spoiling any plot lines, suffice it to say that Danny and Maeve are left to fend for themselves, and Maeve becomes a mother-like figure to Danny, as they journey through decades of their lives, on occasion re-visiting The Dutch House.
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
Best for fans of character-driven literary fiction
- Instant New York Times bestseller
- a New York Times 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 the suburban Philadelphia Pottstown, Pennsylvania, neighborhood Chicken Hill in 1926, where immigrant Jews and African Americans live, a young, deaf, and orphaned boy named Dodo is institutionalized at a local asylum and his Jewish Chicken Hill neighbors and extended African American family members plan to rescue him.
But, the characters and the themes (religion, racism, disability, and more) are abundant as the story is teased out by describing both the townspeople and famous people of the time to show how they co-exist and how they affect each others’ lives. The novel also regularly compares and contrasts Chicken Hill to Philadelphia.
It makes your heart swell, then leaves you with the kind of book hangover only the most meaningful books can.
In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner
Best for fans of sibling stories and “Chick Lit”
In Her Shoes is a very Philadelphia 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!
(Note: While In Her Shoes is the top Jennifer Weiner book I think of when I think of her Philadelphia-based books, I also absolutely loved her book That Summer, a book based in Philadelphia and Cape Cod, and contains more local Philly references than you can count!)
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Best for fans of suspense and social narratives
- Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, Parade, Real, and Buzzfeed
- An instant New York Times bestseller
- Good Morning America book club pick
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 for sure, but it’s a thriller with compassion and a social conscience. These thrills aren’t gratuitous at all. They have a purpose. And the characters are complex and multi-faceted, not just good or evil.
Young female Philadelphia police officer and single mother, Mickey, searches for her sister, a drug addict on the streets of Kensington when she goes missing and a string of similar women are found dead in the area. These sisters also carry with them their pasts — they were raised by their grandmother after their own mother died of an overdose and each endured their share of hardships.
Mickey is dutiful and driven, albeit guarded, and it’s easy to root for her. As the mystery of Kacey’s whereabouts unfolds, there are surprising twists as the reader gains a deeper understanding of the longstanding effects of the opioid epidemic and its intersection with the police in Kensington.
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’s one of the more polarizing books set in Pennsylvania that seems to be either loved or hated, but it is one of my favorite books of all time, and it’s on the Rory Gilmore book list.
The book takes place in the Philadelphia suburbs. The first 50 pages are tough — they detail the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young teenage girl. The remainder of the story details the story of her family searching for her and her killer, and learning how to live without her, while she watches over them from above. But, this isn’t a whodunnit.” It’s more about the family’s grief journey. At times, it is chilling and, at times, it is beautiful.
The Lovely Bones reinvigorated my love of reading when I found it on a clearance rack some fifteen years ago while I was in law school and only reading textbooks.
When the movie version was filmed in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I even visited the set (a suburban neighborhood where Alice Sebold grew up). However, I will say that the movie version didn’t quite capture the spirit of the book and was a bit odd in its handling of the main character’s existence in the afterlife.
If you can get past the traumatic events of this book set in Pennsylvania and look for the beauty that springs from it, you may love The Lovely Bones as well.
The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
Best for fans of modern fiction
New York Times bestseller
In The Silver Linings Playbook, one of the most popular novels set in Philly, 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 (Go Birds!!) are losing. When the Eagles lose, no one is happy and some violence ensues.
Along the way, 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 Post, Chicago Tribune, NPR, Vogue, Elle, Real Simple, InStyle, Good Housekeeping, Parade, Slate, Vox, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, BookPage
- Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize
- An Instant New York Times bestseller
- A Reese Witherspoon book club pick
Such a Fun Age is such a fun book! It did. not. disappoint. and remains one of my favorite Philadelphia novels.
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 center city neighborhood of Washington Square Park. After she is accused of kidnapping the child in a grocery store, a unique sequence of events unfolds. The characters’ lives intersect in ways you won’t see coming, as themes of race, class, and youth are developed.
What’s so unique about this book is the truly modern way these themes are developed in a seemingly liberal setting. Somehow, these difficult, longstanding issues feel fresh and uncovered in this book. I especially liked how it also tackled the issue of health insurance for new college graduates.
So many aspects of this book may make you say, “I hadn’t thought of it that way before.” … which in my opinion 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 so 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, and I couldn’t be happier about it! I was hearing all positive reviews, and I tend to really enjoy YA books about diverse teens with unique voices. It was exactly what I anticipated, and it has become one of my favorite novels set in Philly.
Emoni is a teen mom in Philadelphia (I LOVED all of the many Philly references) 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.
Some comparisons: “Teen Mom” mixed with your favorite cooking show, as well as the diverse high school students and their issues of the Netflix show “Never Have I Ever” and the teenage European trip of Love & Gelato.
I also thought With the Fire on High would make a good book club read because members can cook and eat the recipes and also discuss the options available to Emoni and whether she made the right choice and why. It’s EXCELLENT!
These best books set in Philadelphia capture the essence of the City of Brotherly Love, offering readers a journey through its historic past and dynamic present. Whether you’re a history buff or simply curious about Philly, these works will immerse you in the heart of this iconic American city.
SHOP THE POST
To recap and help you decide where to start or what to read next, my top two picks are:
Share your top pick or any remaining questions you may have in the comments below.