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The best beach reads of all time, according to authors

Featuring romances, hidden gems, classics — and a debate about what a beach read even is.
summer reads
Read With Jenna authors shared their favorite beach reads of all time.

The idea of summer reading, when you’re in school, conjures up obligation. Later, though, the same words become associated with lounging outside, getting lost in a book. And we have an entire genre of books that fit the assignment: beach reads.

As this author-curated list shows, any book can be a beach read. “A lot of people think a beach read has to be light and breezy and short and it can be, but some of my best summer books have been hefty and full of many characters,” Megan Abbott, author of RWJ pick “The Turnout,” told TODAY. For Ethan Joella, author of “A Little Hope,” summer is a time to “mix it up” and explore different genres.

When it comes to beach reads, everyone has a different definition — and a different strategy for actually reading them. Lily King, author of “Writers and Lovers,” likes to bring paperbacks on vacation and doesn’t mind if they get wet, sandy or stained with iced coffee. “I want proof of summer on the pages,” King told TODAY.

Shelby Van Pelt, author of “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” on the other hand, is a self-professed member of “team hardcover.” Van Pelt added, “A hardcover book, when resting between uses, makes an excellent platform on your beach blanket for a cold beverage — just saying.” And for Jean Kwok, author of "Searching for Sylvie Lee," it's "e-books all the way."

This much is true: “Whether hardcover or paperback, books that survive a beach trip have some stories of their own to tell,” Van Pelt said.

Below, find some recommendations for the best beach reads, hand-selected by Read With Jenna authors and TODAY show regulars.

Best beach reads seen on TODAY with Hoda & Jenna

Emma Straub and Jasmine Guillory stopped by TODAY in 2023 to share their recommendations.

"Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge" by Helen Ellis

"Helen is hilarious. These are essays. She's written in the past about family and friendship but this one is about love and marriage," Straub said, saying it's perfect for people in a long-term relationship.

"Mrs. Nash's Ashes" by Sarah Adler

Jasmine Guillory called this a "charming love story" and a book that made her want to "hug it to her chest." It's about two strangers who go on a road trip together to deliver ashes to someone's long-lost love. "In the process, of course, they fall in love," Guillory said.

"Quietly Hostile" by Samantha Irby

Straub's second essay collection recommendation is one by Samantha Irby, an author Straub said is guaranteed to make you laugh "on every page."

"For Her Consideration" by Amy Spalding

This romantic comedy set in L.A., recommended by Guillory, has a very L.A. plot: A girl falls in love with a movie star. Nina Rice had aspirations of being a writer but is instead languishing in the suburbs. Out of the blue, she's given an opportunity to ghostwriter for an up-and-coming actress.

"Tenderheart" by Hetty Lui McKinnon

OK, maybe not a book to bring to the beach, but Straub says this cookbook — which is peppered with stories from the author's life — makes for a compelling read, with delicious results.

"A Living Remedy" by Nicole Chung

This memoir will "make you cry," Guillory says. The memoir is about the loss of the author's parents within a the span of a few years. She says the book is a balm for the loss and grief that marked the COVID-19 pandemic.

More of the best beach reads

'Less' by Andrew Sean Greer

If you’re not traveling this summer, this Pulitzer Prize winning book will take you around the world nonetheless. The hilarious and life-affirming book follows an author as he travels from country to country, trying to outrun pain from a breakup.

"Andrew Sean Greer is hilarious, wise, globe-trotting, and ultimately relatable. It's a joy to read and re-read and a great beach conversation piece," R. Eric Thomas, author of “Here for It,” told TODAY.

'The Shore' by Katie Runde

Ethan Joella, author of the RWJ pick “A Little Hope,” said “The Shore” by Katie Runde is the definition of a beach read. “To me, the best beach read is when you look forward to coming back to the characters over and over on those long vacation days. ‘The Shore perfectly ticks those boxes,” Joella said.

The book is set in the town of Seaside, located on New Jersey’s coast, and switches viewpoints between members of a family as they deal with illness and coming-of-age. “Runde captures the setting so well you feel you are right in the middle of the boardwalk,” Joella said. “It is touching and gripping and life-affirming.”

'Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver' by Mary Oliver

Margaret Renkl, author of the essay collection “Late Migrations,” provides a recommendation for a shorter beach read. Instead of a novel, Renkl suggests poetry — specifically, the work of Mary Oliver, whose inspirational poems are in conversation with the natural world.

“The most wonderful thing about summer is that we are outdoors so much more, and we have time to observe and time to ponder. Mary Oliver writes about the natural world with bright, loving clarity, and her poems are easy to dip into and out of. Read one page; close your eyes and listen to shorebirds calling; go for a walk beside the water and watch the schools of fish moving in concert exactly the way the birds above them are moving together; read another poem; repeat. All summer long,” Renkl said.

'Free Love' by Tessa Hadley

Lily King, author of the novel “Writers and Lovers,” recommends the emotionally astute work of Tessa Hadley for a summer read. As King explained, "It's about a woman from one world who takes a younger lover from another and the transformation that happens to her and all the people around her as a result."

King called "Free Love" the "ultimate beach read" because "it is gorgeously written, funny (and) transportive."

'The Neapolitan Novels Boxed Set'

Elena Ferrante’s Naples-set epic follows two friends, Lila and Elena, from childhood through having children of their own. Their charged friendship, and undeniable competitiveness, motivates each of them to dream bigger than what their relatives in post-war Italy can imagine for them.

“I look for books that are long epics (to last the entirety of the vacation), evocative of summer, with an absorbing story written with urgency and vivid sensory details, and preferably set in a foreign country. The Neapolitan Novels fits all these criteria,” Susie Yang, author of the RWJ pick “White Ivy,” told TODAY.

'Bomb Shelter' by Mary Laura Philpott

For Shelby Van Pelt, author of “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” a beach read is synonymous with a funny essay collection by the likes of David Sedaris, Samantha Irby or Jenny Lawson. “I don't know if it's because they're easier to read in short bursts (with two small kids, I never get to sit in my beach chair for long!) or maybe because I'm away from my own life, and therefore enjoy immersing myself in someone else's,” she said.

This year, she recommends “Bomb Shelter” by self-described “worrier” Mary Laura Philpott, who writes about motherhood and daily life with humor.

'After the Hurricane' by Leah Franqui

Etaf Rum, author of "A Woman Is No Man," points readers in the direction of "After the Hurricane," a 2022 novel by Leah Franqui.

After Hurricane Maria devastates Puerto Rico, Elena Vega returns to the island for the first time since her youth to search for her missing father. They've always had a troubled relationship — but with him gone, Elena can piece together clues to understand him in a way she couldn't before, as well as form her own relationship with her relatives and heritage.

'The Good Left Undone' by Adriana Trigiani

For Kristin Hannah, author of "The Four Winds," a summer read is "a book that both transports and enthralls." She particularly loves "an exotic, romantic setting" and "characters to fall in love with."

Put it together, and you get "The Good Left Undone" by Adriana Trigiani. "This is a beautiful, heartfelt novel that sweeps the reader on a journey through Italy. What could be better to read on a hot summer’s day?

'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt

Jessamine Chan, author of "The School for Good Mothers," turns to a gripping modern classic about a group of students studying Ancient Greek — and the ways of the Ancient Greeks — in a private New England college.

"When traveling, I need a book to be a true page-turner and I can think of no better example than this incredibly spooky, enthralling novel," Chan said.

'Hao: Stories' by Ye Chun

Naima Coster, author of "What's Mine and Yours," offers up a short story collection that she said "rocked me to my core."

"'Hao' by Ye Chun is a powerful, slim collection of stories about Chinese and Chinese American women finding their way in the world. These stories are all so different — they span centuries and continents and focus on women facing distinct challenges, from trying to recover language after a stroke, to navigating fraught marriages, and protecting their children from violence and siege. What the stories share is an interest in mothers and mothering, loving and nurturing, across time and place," Coster said.

'The Family Chao' by Lan Samantha Chang

Jean Kwok, author of "Searching for Sylvie Lee," says she looks for a compelling story in a beach read — "preferably something with passion, love and maybe even murder." For her, it's a plus if there's some humor woven in. "While I don’t want some kind of academic treatise, I also don’t want to feel like I’ve just binged on cotton candy," she said.

That's why she recommends Lan Samantha Chang’s "The Family Chao" for a summer read. "It’s a beautifully written literary mystery about a tyrannical patriarch who is found murdered and each one of his sons has a motive. It's filled with suspense, heartbreak and humor, and thoroughly entertaining," she said.

'The Book of Difficult Fruit' by Kate Lebo

Megha Majumdar, author of "A Burning," looks for a book that can hold her attention. She's especially drawn toward "absorbing nonfiction," offering up Kate Lebo's "The Book of Difficult Fruit" as an example.

Lebo's collection of personal essays are structured around fruits, blending culinary facts with details about her life and musings about universal fruits. In this book, berries and bananas have lessons.

'Running Out' by Lucas Bessire

Majumdar also recommended "Running Out" by Lucas Bessire as an example of absorbing nonfiction. Bessire returns to the High Plains of Kansas, where his family is from, to study the effects of drought on the environment and on people's lives.

'Grown Ups' by Marian Keyes

Bestselling author Marian Keyes has a trove of page-turners, and Charmaine Wilkerson, author of "Black Cake," recommends this one. After a concussion, one character becomes a truth-teller, exposing all the lies that prop up her husband's family.

"I look for humor and great dialogue in a beach read. I recommend this Keyes title for its insightful look at family and couple dynamics," Wilkerson said.

'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' by Maria Semple

Tara Conklin, author of "The Last Romantics," likes "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" for its heart-warming and hilarious nature. In the book, a mother at the end of her rope decides to disappear.

"With scenes in rainy Seattle and frosty Antarctica, the book will cool you down on the hottest beach days," Conklin said.

'The Old Ways' by Robert Macfarlane

Lee Cole, author of “Groundskeeping,” admits that he associates this book with the beach because he read it in Cape Cod, but that's not the only reason why it's a good vacation read.

“But much of 'The Old Ways' is set around the beaches and coastlines of Britain. It's about the author's attempt to retrace ancient footpaths and trails, not just in England and Scotland, but in Palestine and Spain. Part travel memoir, part essay, it's a treasure trove of nature writing and gorgeous imagery, perfect for the meditative calm of the beach,” Cole said.

'Cover Story' by Susan Rigetti

Linda Holmes, author of “Evvie Drake Starts Over,” recommends “Cover Story” by Susan Rigetti. “It’s exciting, it’s surprising, it’s satisfying, it’s darkly funny, and it will keep you guessing,” Holmes said.

Lora Ricci knows she wants to be a writer — but isn’t sure how to get there. When she meets heiress Cat Wolff at a summer internship at a magazine, and Cat offers her a chance to be her ghostwriter, Lora drops out of college and accepts. Lora sees Cat's stories for what they are: stories. The action unfolds through mediums like diary entries, emails and FBI correspondence.

'Get a Life, Chloe Brown' by Talia Hibbert

“I think any Talia Hibbert book is an absolutely perfect way to spend a summer day,” Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of “Malibu Rising,” said.

Talia Hibbert is the author of contemporary romances. Her romances shine on both a sentence and character level. The language is witty, the sexual tension is steamy and the characters’ growth is something to marvel at.

'Let's Not Do That Again' by Grant Ginder

“Good Company” author Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney called “Let’s Not Do That Again” the “ultimate beach read,” saying “it's funny, smart, surprising and much of the book takes place in Paris so it feels like a mini-trip.”

In the book, Nancy Harrison is a politician with a stellar chance of winning her bid for Senator — if her two adult children don’t entirely derail her campaign.

'Mother Country' by Jacinda Townsend

Elizabeth Wetmore, author of “Valentine,” has three words when it comes to this novel: “Read it now.”

In “Mother Country,” a woman on vacation in Morocco finds an abandoned toddler with whom she shares an undeniable resemblance. Shannon and her boyfriend adopt the child and raise her in Kentucky — but the child has a mother, an undocumented woman who was trafficked as a teen, and now is going through another devastating separation done without her consent.

'Summer Sisters' by Judy Blume

Qian Julie Wang, author of "Beautiful Country," reaches for a book that conjures up nostalgia and the smell of the sea.

"For me, beach reads are about an escape, but to a safe and familiar place. For all those adults who remain nostalgic for the worlds of 'Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,' 'Deenie,' and 'Tiger Eyes,' this book is the return you’ve been looking for."

'In the Cut' by Susanna Moore

Perhaps it’s no surprise that acclaimed mystery writer Megan Abbott is drawn to thrillers at the beach. “I like something that keeps me riveted and my mind active — the kind of book that, every day, you see at the bottom of your beach bag and you grab it so fast because you can't wait to see what happens next,” she told TODAY.

‘In the Cut’ is a textbook erotic thriller — and for Abbott, it’s the gift that keeps giving. “I've read "In the Cut" more than once and each time it still somehow keeps me guessing because it's about so much more than it seems,” Abbott said.

'Daisy Jones & The Six' by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat Pray Love," recommended Taylor Jenkins Reid's 70s-set novel, the oral history of a band that never was — but will seem real, after following its evolution for chapters.

'Very Nice' by Marcy Dermansky

Fans of situational comedies and rom-coms will like this novel from Marcy Dermansky. Chosen by Jane Green, "Very Nice" features a small cast of wickedly funny characters and a plot straight out a Shakespearean romance.

'Queenie' by Candice Carty-Williams

Jane Green also recommends "Queenie," Candice Carty-Williams' honest, boldly political, and darkly humorous novel about a British woman in her 20s. As its main character ratchets from one bad idea to another, readers may recognize themselves in her — and maybe find some answers as she does.

'The Body Lies' by Jo Baker

Elizabeth Gilbert recommends "The Body Lies" for fans of dark, psychological dramas. With high-stakes storytelling and riveting suspense, this story goes beyond just a simple mystery as it addresses some of our own major societal problems.

'The Key to Happily Ever After' by Tif Marcelo

Romance author Jasmine Guillory shouted out this light-hearted read, giving readers a witty, romantic look into the lives of three sisters who work as wedding planners. When their parents retire, the three take over the family business and quickly realize that fairytale weddings are never as smooth as they seem.

"The Farm," by Joanne Ramos

This chilling novel from Joanne Ramos, picked by Green, makes readers consider weighty issues like gender and class, race and religion, American meritocracy and motherhood, and the trade-offs women make to secure their own futures — and the futures of those they love.

"The Hazel Wood," by Melissa Albert

Adeyemi picked this stunning bestseller. With a plot that pulls the reader through an endless series of twists and surprises, it's a satisfying, dramatic read that doesn't let up on the mystery until the final page is turned.

"On Being Human," by Jennifer Pastiloff and Lidia Yuknavitch

Gilbert picked this inspirational memoir from Jennifer Pastiloff. Centered around touchstone stories that she shares in her workshops, Pastiloff tells the story about how one can battle their own demons to grow into the person they were always meant to be.

"How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures" by Sabrina Imbler

While nonfiction books aren't always thought to be beach reads, "A Burning" author Megha Majumdar recommends "How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures" by Sabrina Imbler.

Majumdar said she loved the book, which she described as "both an unexpected and absolutely perfect beach read," and "a blend of memoir and science writing" that considers different sea creatures and "folds them into reflections on care, survival, parenthood and love."

"It’s completely absorbing (essential for a beach read!) and it made me see the ocean in a new way," Majumdar said. "Could a seaside experience be more rewarding than that?"

"Age of Vice" by Deepti Kapoor

The July 2023 Read With Jenna pick, "Banyan Moon" by Thao Thai, was a classic summer read. Thai herself recommends "Age of Vice" by Deepti Kapoor.

"For summer, I always want to go on an adventure to a place or time I haven’t experienced," she said. "This literary crime novel is immersive, transportive, and wildly entertaining. It’ll keep readers hooked for hours!"

"Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke

Ann Patchett, the author of "The Dutch House" and owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, said in the summer, she likes "an all-encompassing world" and "a big novel that I never want to leave."

"Nothing did that for me quite like Susanna Clarke’s classic 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.' I read it and then I few years later I listened to it just because I wanted to be back in that world again," Patchett said. "Both options were great."

"People We Meet on Vacation" by Emily Henry

Jamie Ford, author of "The Many Daughters of Afong Moy," said he listened to the audiobook of "People We Meet on Vacation" by Emily Henry while driving to the Oregon Coast with his wife.

"It was perfect in every way," Ford said. "Hilarious, romantic, and impossible to put down (or turn off, since it was an audiobook)."

Ford also recommended Henry's "aptly titled" novel, "Beach Read," along with Nora Roberts' "Whiskey Beach" and "Beach Music" by the "late, great, Pat Conroy."

"The Plot" by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Lauren Grodstein, the author of the December 2023 Read With Jenna pick "We Must Not Think of Ourselves," said she read Jean Hanff Korelitz’s "The Plot" in a single afternoon on a beach in Maine last summer.

"It’s that hard to put down! Suspenseful, fun, and masterfully constructed, the novel takes place in the world of writing and writers — so basically it’s everything I love in a book," she said.

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