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9 escapist reads that will make you feel like you’re traveling even though you can’t

May 23, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC
"The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane" (Scribner); "The Vacationers" (Penguin); "American Spy" (Random House)
Alex Scimecca

For some of us, summer vacation might be a summer staycation this year. But rest assured: Summer reading has not been canceled. If you can’t go to the beach, these books could bring the beach (read) to you.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

A large family getaway, an anniversary party, and a postgraduation celebration congregate at a Mediterranean seaside summer vacation home on the picturesque Spanish island of Mallorca. Naturally, not everyone is going to get along, but the relationships and rivalries never become overwhelming under the deft and droll pen of New York Times bestselling author and bookstore owner Emma Straub. (Bonus read: Straub’s latest book, All Adults Here, was published this month.)

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

In The Alchemist—part epic travel journey, part mystic quest—the illustrious Brazilian author Paulo Coelho spins the tale of a young Andalusian shepherd who, after a recurring dream, makes the trip across North Africa to the Egyptian pyramids. By the book’s end, you’ll realize Coelho’s epic (albeit short in page-length) novel is more philosophical than plot-driven, inspiring the reader to search within (rather than elsewhere) to realize one’s destiny.

The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah

A must-read for Francophiles, oenophiles, historical fiction lovers, or anyone who longs to traipse through a vineyard in the late afternoon. Ann Mah’s charming novel revolves around a family-owned vineyard in Beaune, in the heart of France’s Burgundy region, flipping between two timelines—the Nazi occupation and present-day—with a mystery spanning generations that needs to be solved before time runs out.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

This novel is like walking into a dreamy Instagram photo of Cinque Terre—specifically during the era of La Dolce Vita (released in 1960), as the plot loosely centers on the filming of the Hollywood epic (but troubled production) of Cleopatra, released in 1963. Readers are transported between Golden Era Los Angeles, Rome, and a tiny, sunny (and fictional) village along Italy’s rugged coastline on the Ligurian Sea, with a mixture of fictional and real-life characters against the backdrop of one of the most expensive and chaotic movie productions in cinematic history.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, there are vampires in this book. But this might be, quite possibly, the most realistic take on the bloodthirsty supernatural beings. Readers can look forward to being transported across time (primarily the 1950s through 1970s) and place (from American Ivy League campuses to Istanbul to southern France to sneaking behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War). History, fantasy, romance—there’s so much in this book, and yet it never feels overwhelming. It’s a thrilling rush from start to finish, and you’ll want to go back to the beginning all over again when you’re done.

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

With so many flights grounded, canceled, and even potentially crowded, this could be the summer of the road trip for anyone still making an attempt at travel. Bringing readers all the way back to the last financial crisis, Jade Chang’s hilarious spin on the contemporary family road trip— from their lavish mansion in the posh Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles to upstate New York through the American South—will have you looking into renting a car for a jaunt of your own. Just pick your companions wisely.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

Given the title, you know that this is going to be a spy novel. We won’t give much more of the plot away—except that you can expect to follow the main character as she gets caught in a CIA-spun web from 1980s Harlem to the rugged Caribbean island of Martinique to West Africa—all while working undercover to gather intelligence on the Marxist leader of Burkina Faso. (If you need any more convincing, this novel was also on President Obama’s summer reading list for 2019.)

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

There are so many books to choose from in Lisa See’s canon of historical fiction, all of which beautifully showcase Asian women’s stories not often depicted in U.S. television or film. Among one of her best works is The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, centered on a young woman from an ethnic-minority community, whose skill in the study and farming of Pu’er tea takes her on an upward trajectory (with a few bumps in the road) from a remote mountain village in the southwestern Yunnan province to some of China’s largest, most industrialized cities.

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

The book takes off with a protagonist who is a magazine writer working on a travel story, so you know some lush locale descriptions are in store for the reader. Jumping from present-day Miami to pre-revolution Havana, this is the ideal summer read for anyone looking for a mixture of family drama, romance, politics, money, and historical fiction weaved together—with a sequel already available.