The Lists

The Best Novels About Work and Office Life

the best novels and books about work and office life

Now that we’re deep into WFH, the politics and little irritations of office life aren’t looking so bad, now are they? While we wait to return, here are some fictional reminders of what we’re missing. What are the best novels and non-fiction books about work and office life? Here’s a list of great reads about work and office life and novels set at work.

What are the best novels and books about work and office life?

When we think about great works of fiction, we generally assume that they take place in the domestic sphere, or in the personal lives of their protagonists. But most of us spend a great deal of our lives at work. And the dramas that play out there often have significant impact on what happens at home.

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So here at Dandelion Chandelier, we decided to turn our attention to the best novels about work and office life. Fiction about the practical matter of making a living. Tales of what we’ll endure to be gainfully employed. Books about the struggle to make a living; the toll employment can take on us; the crazy coworkers who become like family; the ill-advised workplace romances; the tedium of a low-paying role.

best novels about work

And the very different kind of passion that some lucky ones feel for their profession – when the lines between work and play, and the professional and the personal disappear, and one’s work becomes synonymous with the very purpose of life itself.

We’re also tossing in a novel about what it’s like to live with someone who’s that consumed by their work – when you’re not.

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In the realm of non-fiction, we’re focused on works that are descriptive, not prescriptive. So you won’t find any “how to succeed in corporate life” books here (sorry, no Lean In). That list is for another day.

For now, have a look at the landscape of books about work and office life. Heck, you could even read one of these novels about office life at work – we won’t tell if you won’t.

great reads set at work

great reads about work and office life

The literature of work and office life is vast. And like every other genre, there are examples of both the sublime and the ridiculous (we’re looking right at you, The Devil Wears Prada). There’s no way that we could hit them all. So we’re sharing our personal edit of the best novels and books about work and office life.

Here are our picks of some of the best novels set at work, and non-fiction about work and office life.


Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is the definitive modern novel of the workplace – gorgeously written, funny, sharp and melancholy.

The notes on Amazon put it perfectly: “Every office is a family of sorts, and the Chicago ad agency Ferris depicts is family at its best and worst. Coping with a business downturn in the time-honored way: through gossip, elaborate pranks, and increasingly frequent coffee breaks. As they attempt to stave off the inevitable, the cast of this expansive epic contend not just with job loss. But with breakdowns, break-ups, and rounds of Celebrity Death Match that force them to confront their own mortality.” It’s a fantastic read, and it will stay with you.


The Assistants by Camille Perri is a light and funny first novel that takes the spirit of Nine to Five and brings it firmly into the modern day. Tina Fontana is a thirty-year-old executive assistant to the CEO of a multinational media conglomerate. She’s excellent at her job, but deep in student loan debt even after six years in the workforce. When a technical error with her boss’s expense report presents the opportunity to pay off the entire balance of her loans, she becomes the accidental head of an all-woman white collar embezzlement crew. As with Thelma and Louise, you’ll be rooting for them to outrun (or outsmart) the law.


Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville is a short story first published in 1853. You may have been assigned to read it in high school – even if you’ve read it before, it’s a perfect re-read, as you’ll experience it differently at various ages and stages of your life. Briefly: a Wall Street lawyer hires a new clerk, Bartleby. After an initial bout of hard work, he refuses all tasks requested by his employer with the words “I would prefer not to.” Which it turns out is the secret cri de cour of office workers everywhere.

best novels about work and office life

Excellent novels set at work and great reads about office life. Courtesy Photos.


The Country Life by Rachel Cusk is a wonderful novel about one young woman’s attempt to flee a job in London for a new one in the countryside in the hopes of transforming her life.

Stella Benson answers a classified ad for an au pair, arriving in a tiny Sussex village that’s home to a family that is slightly larger than life. Her hopes for the new job are high, but her social station turns out to be low. Cusk’s incredible talent shines brightly here – it’s a funny and charming comedy of manners with a strongly beating heart.

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The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker is a novel of work, art, family, friendship and love, and what happens when they all intermingle.

Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are two women making their way in the male-dominated field of animation. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, they work, drink, and create together, which results in a provocative and daring work of art based on Sharon’s difficult childhood. Inevitably, rivalries and insecurities emerge – as does the fundamental question of whether there is – or should be – any separation between an artist’s life and her work.


The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is historical fiction about a woman married to a man who is married to his work.

Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old when she meets the young and charismatic Ernest Hemingway. They marry quickly, and settle in Paris, where they become part of the fabled “Lost Generation,” with friends like Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. While he’s obsessed with earning a place in history as a writer and pouring himself into his work, she struggles with loneliness. What happens when there’s not enough room for both work and family in one driven person’s life?

best novels about work and office life

Excellent novels set at work and great reads about office life. Courtesy Photos.


Another prescient novel about work that in hindsight seems ripped-from-the-headlines real, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is a preview of the now-prevalent stories of what it’s like to be an attractive young woman working at a celebrated New York City restaurant. Long before #MeToo, she wrote this novel centered on twenty-two-year-old Tess, freshly arrived in the city from a small town in the Midwest, who enters the world of the food industry a naif, and emerges older and wiser. And bitter. 

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The Pleasing Hour is the brilliant writer Lily King’s debut novel. It’s the poignant coming-of-age story of Rosie, an American au pair in Paris. She’s fleeing an unspeakable loss, and struggling to connect to Nicole – the distant and sophisticated mother of the three children she cares for. Meanwhile, her bond with the patriarch of the household becomes erotic and destructive. You can see the seeds of King’s later powerful novels like Euphoria (which is also a novel about work) in this first deeply moving and insightful work.


Everyone remembers their first job. The memories may be fond or nightmarish, but they’re enduring. In Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, the first job in question is at an ice cream parlor in a tony village in the Hamptons. This lovely semi-autobiographical novel follows the protagonist Benji, who comes each summer to Sag Harbor, where a small community of African-American professionals have built a world of their own. Set during the summer of ’85, Benji is tested by contests big and small, by his misshapen haircut, by the New Coke Tragedy, and by his secret Lite FM addiction. Oh, and there’s ice cream. Lots and lots of ice cream.

best novels set at work

Excellent novels set at work and great reads about office life. Courtesy Photos.


American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson is one of the best new novels we’ve read so far this year. It’s a fast-moving story about a young black woman working for the FBI in New York City. She’s consistently passed over for advancement opportunities the go to less-qualified men. So when the opportunity comes for her to take a clandestine work assignment in Africa for the CIA, she takes it. Her work life and personal life quickly become inextricably intertwined. It’s smart, savvy and freshand it will make a desk job seem like not such a bad lot in life.

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata challenges the idea of retail work as meaningless drudge labor. The novel explores work in the service economy through the eyes of a woman who actually enjoys being a store employee. 


In the whimsical and terrifying novel Severance by Ling Ma, the author explores a pressing and existential question: Would you keep showing up for work even once the zombie apocalypse begins?  Set in a New York crumbling after an outbreak of “Shen Fever,” the young Candace Chen stays at her publishing job in New York until the city is all but deserted, waiting to collect on a big final payout that’s effectively worthless. Her robotic inability to stop reporting for work is one of the scariest elements of the entire tale.

best novels and books about office life and work

Excellent novels set at work and great reads about office life. Courtesy Photos.


Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse is about a mathematician named Katherine who was one of the only female graduate students at MIT in the early 1960’s. Despite being surrounded by men who either dismiss her outright or want to use her intelligence for their own gains, Katherine maintains her determination to have an academic career. And to solve the Riemann hypothesis, one of the greatest mysteries in math.

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King of the Mississippi by Mike Freedman is centered around a “war” for dominance of a prestigious Houston consulting firm. Yes, you heard that right: a novel about management consultants at work! Pretty sure that’s a first.


Hotels of North America by Rick Moody is the Up in the Air of the hospitality industry. Reginald Edward Morse makes a living one of the top reviewers on a fictional website similar to Trip Advisor. But his online reviews of the properties he visits slide into a journal of his personal life and the melancholy of life on the road. It’s a wonderful read: funny, poignant and realistic about how work is both a shield and a barrier when it comes to our most intimate relationships.

Excellent novels set at work and great reads about office life. Courtesy Photos.


In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, author and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich goes “undercover” in the late 1990’s as an unskilled worker to reveal the dark side of American prosperity.

Well before global attention focused on living wages and a higher minimum wage, Ehrenreich memorably demonstrated the urgency around the topics by recounting her firsthand experiences as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She passionately makes the case that no job is truly “unskilled,” and that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. It’s like The Jungle for the modern service economy.

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Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land includes a foreword by Ehrenreich. Published early in 2019, twenty years after Nickel and Dimed, Land’s book is a memoir of her lived experience – there’s no “undercover” here. She dreamed of college and a career as a writer. But an unplanned pregnancy left her as a single mother, working as a housekeeper to make ends meet. It’s a candid and piercing view of life near the bottom of the economic ladder, and what it actually means to be a “servant” worker in America. 


Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Makes People Miserable by Dan Lyons is a widely-acclaimed satire/take-down of modern office life. Team-building exercises. Forced Fun. Desktop surveillance. Open-plan offices. Acronyms. Diminishing job security. Hot desking. Hackathons. You know, all of the trappings of work in a large corporation. Lyons assesses “how the world of work has slowly morphed from one of unions and steady career progression to a dystopia made of bean bags and unpaid internships.” Happy Labor Day, everyone!

best non-fiction books about work and office life

The best non-fiction books about work and office life. Courtesy Photos.

the best novels set at work and books about work

That’s it! Our picks for some of the best novels and books about work and office life. What’s on your list of great reads about work and office life? What’s your favorite novel set at work?

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