Grossman (Codex, 2004, etc.) imagines a sorcery school whose primary lesson seems to be that bending the world to your will isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
When Quentin manages to find Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy and pass its baffling entrance exam, he finally feels at home somewhere. Back in the real world, Quentin and fellow students, like brilliant, crippling shy Alice and debonair, sexually twisted Eliot, were misfits, obsessed with a famous children’s series called Fillory and Further (The Chronicles of Narnia, very lightly disguised). Brakebills teaches them how to tap into the universe’s flow of energy to cast spells; they’re ready to graduate and…then what? “You can do nothing or anything or everything,” cautions Alice, who has become Quentin’s lover. “You have to find something to really care about to keep from running totally off the rails.” Her warning seems apt as he indulges in aimless post-grad drinking and partying, eventually betraying Alice with two other Brakebills alums. The discovery that Fillory actually exists offers Quentin a chance to redeem himself with Alice and find a purpose for his life as well. But Fillory turns out to be an even more dangerous, anarchic place than the books suggested, and it harbors a Beast who’s already made a catastrophic appearance at Brakebills. The novel’s climax includes some spectacular magical battles to complement the complex emotional entanglements Grossman has deftly sketched in earlier chapters. The bottom line has nothing to do with magic at all: “There’s no getting away from yourself,” Quentin realizes. After a dreadful loss that he discovers is the result of manipulation by forces that care nothing about him or his friends, Quentin chooses a bleak, circumscribed existence in the nonmagical world. Three of his Brakebills pals return to invite him back to Fillory: Does this promise new hope, or threaten more delusions?
Very dark and very scary, with no simple answers provided—fantasy for grown-ups, in other words, and very satisfying indeed.
A witty, involving boarding-school drama from Seventeen magazine award-winner Sittenfeld.
Seduced by media depictions of glamorous boarding-school life, South Bend teenager Lee Fiora uses her straight-A average as a ticket out of her LCM (lower middle class, in prep-school speak) home, winning a scholarship to tony Ault. But once there, she’s immediately the dorkey outcast, relegated to the company of the ethnics and the weirdoes. The rest could have been a standard nerd narrative, as Lee pursues the unattainably cool and gorgeous Cross Sugerman and finds an unexpected niche cutting hair for the popular kids. But Sittenfeld is too serious to let the story lapse into cliché. Instead of triumphing, her underdog is gradually corrupted by her frustrated social climbing. Lee’s grades flag while she obsesses about being liked; Cross does finally come to her bed, but keeps it a shameful secret, using her only as an easy sexual outlet. While resenting the popular kids, Lee is too vain to court them, preferring to lurk resentfully in her room. When her loving but lowbrow family comes to visit, she tries only to hide them, sacrificing her parents for an elusive popularity. By the end, Lee’s father has turned his back on her, remarking, “Sorry I couldn’t buy you a big house with a palm tree, Lee. Sorry you got such a raw deal for a family.” Her one close friend and roommate, Martha, serves as a foil. Beginning as an outsider like Lee, Martha finally becomes the senior prefect, generally liked for her straightforward kindness. As for Lee, we never lose sympathy for her, even when it becomes clear that it’s not her classmates’ snobbery but her own that isolates her. The boarding-school formula allows newcomer Sittenfeld the comforting slippers-and-ice-cream haven of chick-lit while allowing much more in the way of psychological insight.
Teenaged years served up without sugar: a class act.
Troubled teenage boy hopes for a fresh start after transferring to a third-rate New England prep school.
Blessed with a stunning oceanfront view and populated by an assortment of screw-ups from America’s wealthiest families, Bellingham is Jason Prosper’s last chance. At least it is if—like the other men in his very rich family—he wants to attend Princeton. Still mourning the loss of his best friend, Cal, who hung himself at their previous boarding school, Jason struggles with considerable guilt. The boys were sailing partners and secret lovers, and Cal died after a falling out between the two. Ambivalent about even getting on the water without Cal, Jason quits the Bellingham sailing team after almost drowning a fellow student, Race, during a training exercise. He instead fixates on Aidan, a fragile redhead from California who the other boys have taken to calling “Hester” in reference to The Scarlet Letter. Aidan, who has reason to believe she might be the illegitimate daughter of movie star Robert Mitchum, has plenty of issues of her own, but she responds well to Jason’s kindness and the two begin a fledgling romance. But after a hurricane, she goes missing, and is found dead of an assumed suicide. Sensing that she would not have taken her own life, Jason attempts to retrace her last night—leading to several harsh discoveries and considerable soul-searching of his own dark heart (and ambiguous sexuality). Meanwhile, Jason’s estranged parents and shady financier older brother provide minimal emotional support. Set against the backdrop of the 1987 stock-market collapse, Dermont’s confident debut novel almost works as a swan song for a lost gilded age. But her insular, sociopathic characters and emotionally removed 18-year-old narrator do little to engender sympathy—or interest.
Preppy murder mystery meets coming-of-age story—with lots of sailing.
After a mild-mannered family-dramedy debut (The Arrivals, 2011), Moore gets way more intense in a novel that mingles the stories of a cyberbullied high school student, a guilt-ridden archivist and an Irish maid in the 1920s.
It’s unusual for a 13-year-old to be poking around the Massachusetts Archives, especially since she’s come to Boston on the bus all the way from Newburyport. But what really attracts Kathleen Lynch’s attention to Natalie Gallagher is that the girl reminds Kathleen of her own daughter Susannah, who got involved in drugs and vanished just before graduating from high school some 10 years ago. Natalie’s under pressure too; Kathleen sees a vaguely threatening text on the girl’s dropped cell phone, and we quickly learn that Natalie is being bullied by her former BFF Hannah Morgan and Hannah’s new pal, the extremely nasty Taylor Grant. Natalie’s mother, who’s gone practically catatonic since her husband moved out, is in no shape to protect her daughter, and Kathleen’s well-meaning attempts to help backfire. A second plot unfolds in the notebook Natalie found in the basement of her family’s house and brought to the Archives; it details Bridget O’Connell’s experiences in 1925-1926 as a maid to Newburyport’s Turner family. Moore’s storytelling skills are evident as the tension builds on both fronts. Bridget suffers demeaning treatment from Mrs. Turner and winds up in bed with Dr. Turner, with disastrous consequences. Taylor’s persecution escalates, and Natalie feels increasingly isolated as her mother buries herself in work, her father takes a vacation with his new girlfriend, and Kathleen is distracted by a friend whose lover is caught in the Haitian earthquake. Moore is equally skillful in capturing the class tensions of the early 20th century and the scary cruelty of teenage girls amplified by 21st-century technology.
The final pages dangle a plethora of loose ends, but they’re unlikely to bother readers gripped by the novel’s strong emotional content.
Journalist Miller (Inheriting the Holy Land, 2005) makes her fiction debut with a smoldering mystery set in a New England prep school.
Iris Dupont’s parents have relocated to western Massachusetts, ostensibly so she can attend the prestigious Mariana Academy, but really because they’re worried about Iris. Her best friend Dalia recently committed suicide, and Iris has been observed talking to a wall—actually, she confides, she’s talking to her idol, Edward R. Murrow, and, yes, she knows he’s dead; but their imaginary conversations help smart, ambitious Iris sort out her feelings and remain focused on her goal of becoming a great journalist. She gets plenty to investigate, beginning with a science book containing a mysterious inscription that she finds in the bedroom of Lily Morgan, daughter of Mariana’s former headmaster. The Duponts are temporarily staying in the absent Morgans’ house, a rare contrived premise in an otherwise well-plotted tale that mingles first-person narrations by Iris and biology teacher Jonah Kaplan, who was once a student at Mariana, with the grim story of Lily’s ordeal and departure from Mariana in 2000. The novel occasionally recalls Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), with its tale of a covert student group (Prisom’s Party in this case) up to no good, but it’s far less pretentious, and Miller’s portrait of the way basically decent kids get sucked into destructive behavior is more credible. Prisom’s Party does engage in some very ugly antics, however, and as Mariana’s scandal-racked history unfolds through Iris’ detective work, we see that Jonah was implicated in past wrongdoing as well. The author skillfully ratchets up the tension as Iris (and the reader) finds it harder and harder to tell who the good guys are, particularly after Prisom’s Party sends an appealing boy to recruit her. It’s scarily possible that she will come to share Jonah’s guilt and grief, as she is manipulated into the sort of betrayal that shattered Lily’s life.
A gripping thrill ride that’s also a thoughtful coming-of-age story.
A first-rate debut about a teenaged girl’s arduous six-year journey of self-discovery. Astrid is 12 when her beloved mother, the poet Ingrid Magnussen, murders a former lover and is sent to jail. Her father long gone, Astrid ends up in foster care, moving through dysfunctional households across southern California. Only Claire Richards, actress wife of a wealthy TV producer, seems to offer a real family life as she nurtures Astrid’s academic and artistic abilities. But the Richards home has deep emotional fissures, skillfully exploited by Ingrid, who keeps jealous watch over her daughter by letter. Weak, neurotic Claire succumbs, and Astrid’s last foster home is a chaotic crash-pad overseen by a Russian immigrant engaged in various semi-legal hustles. Meanwhile, Ingrid has become a feminist cause cÇläbre with naive young disciples and a media-savvy lawyer working to get her a new trial. The embittered Astrid wants no part of this effort, and in a jailhouse confrontation challenges Ingrid to prove that she regrets her destructive role and will try to make amends for the hard times she’s caused her daughter. Despite melodramatic plot twists, the foster homes provide a nicely eclectic panorama of late 20th-century American life and a revealing stage for Astrid’s growth and personal struggles. She’s an appealing protagonist, smart and vulnerable, though her formidable mother is even more intriguing, and the author brilliantly delineates the woman’s complexity through her letters, which are masterpieces of epistolary voice and character development. Fitch displays remarkable artistic and psychological maturity throughout, skillfully making use of metaphors (like the beautifully poisonous oleander, Ingrid’s signature flower) to illuminate her central theme: the longing for order and connection in a world where even the most intimate bonds can be broken in an instant. The author allows her protagonist to achieve adulthood, love, an artistic vocation, and some semblance of inner peace without scanting the scars she will always carry. Vigorous, polished prose, strong storytelling, satisfyingly complex characters, and thoughtfully nuanced perceptions: an impressive debut indeed.
A stately, wonderfully written debut novel that incorporates a few of the great archetypes: a disabled but resourceful young man, a potential Clytemnestra of a mom and a faithful dog.
Writing to such formulas, with concomitant omniscience and world-weariness, has long been the stuff of writing workshops. Wroblewski is the product of one such place, but he seems to have forgotten much of what he learned there: He takes an intense interest in his characters; takes pains to invest emotion and rough understanding in them; and sets them in motion with graceful language (and, in eponymous young Edgar’s case, sign language). At the heart of the book is a pup from an extremely rare breed, thanks to a family interest in Mendelian genetics; so rare is Almondine, indeed, that she finds ways to communicate with Edgar that no other dog and human, at least in literature, have yet worked out. Edgar may be voiceless, but he is capable of expressing sorrow and rage when his father suddenly dies, and Edgar decides that his father’s brother, who has been spending a great deal of time with Edgar’s mother, is responsible for the crime. That’s an appropriately tragic setup, and Edgar finds himself exiled to the bleak wintry woods—though not alone, for he is now the alpha of his own very special pack. The story takes Jungle Book-ish turns: “He blinked at the excess moonlight in the clearing and clapped for the dogs. High in the crown of a charred tree, an owl covered its dished face, and one branch down, three small replicas followed. Baboo came at once. Tinder had begun pushing into the tall grass and he turned and trotted back.” It resolves, however, in ways that will satisfy grown-up readers. The novel succeeds admirably in telling its story from a dog’s-eye view that finds the human world very strange indeed.
An auspicious debut: a boon for dog lovers, and for fans of storytelling that eschews flash. Highly recommended.
Atwood's wide-screen, cautionary Handmaid's Tale (1986) confirmed the author's place in the major leagues, and here she follows up with a work of intensity and tart wit. Where Handmaid's Tale took a long, allegorical view, this latest shows Atwood working more familiar territory of nuance and character. Acclaimed artist Elaine Risley returns to Toronto from Vancouver to attend a retrospective of her work, and—as the show's opening approaches—Risley's memories of a bitter Toronto childhood blend with the exile's ironic asides about a new city up to its eyeballs in money and new clothes. Just why Risley hates Toronto so much becomes clear when we're introduced to her childhood friends. At the center of the group is Cordelia, a future bad-girl who leads the others in routine tormenting of Elaine. The subterranean world of childhood and the uncanny ability of children to inflict abuse on one another are superbly captured here, as is the sulky twilight zone of adolescence. As Elaine and Cordelia progress through school, the tables begin to turn, and in the end Cordelia—mentally unstable and confined to a "home"—finds herself at the mercy of Elaine. Along the way: finely drawn protraits of an emerging North American city in the 40's, 50's, and early 60's, with high marks going to Atwood's vivid depiction of the rituals of school, play, and friendship. All the better Atwood trademarks are here—wry humor, unforgiving detailed observation, a tart prose style—and likely to attract a wide audience.
The creator of the short-lived but highly praised TV series Freaks and Geeks takes us on an enjoyable tour through some of the more vivid scenes of tortured 1970s adolescence in the American suburban landscape.
Gifted with a remarkable ability to remember the specific and singular torments of youth, Feig presents a collection of essays about a smorgasbord of incidents that should be familiar to anyone who has experienced life before age 18. There is the botched first kiss, the alternating boredom and misery of a single little-league season, the inevitability of a derogatory nickname based on his last name (Feig got off easy with “Fignewton” in elementary school, but by middle school had been dubbed “Fag”). The author plays it all for laughs, whether he's detailing the challenges of getting his matter-of-fact parents to whip up an elf costume for the elementary-school play (all costume elements were gleaned from his father's Army-Navy surplus store), or taking a frighteningly “fast” girl to the Christmas dance (she drinks, vomits, and then expects a kiss). Feig spares himself no humiliation, relaying with great gusto his discovery of masturbation during rope-climbing day in gym class, and his brief fascination with cross-dressing, which ended abruptly when his mother was in a car accident and, with no time to change, he had to appear at the scene in full drag. Though not much of a stylist—“I've never been much for sports” is a typical opening line—the author has a dead-on sense of timing and detail. Delivering any sort of message is secondary to getting a laugh, but Feig does convey the absolute bewilderment of being a kid who cannot automatically accept the countless social conventions that seem unquestioned by his peers.
A zippy reminder of what we've all thankfully escaped.
In the latest from Miller (The World Below, 2001, etc.), a family member’s death alters the established patterns and rhythms among those who survive.
Eva’s second husband, John, is killed by a car while on a walk with Eva and their three-year-old son, Theo. Eva, who runs a bookstore in California wine country, is understandably devastated. Temporarily unable to cope, she sends Theo and his half-sisters, popular high-school senior Emily and gawky 14-year-old Daisy, to their father, her ex-husband Mark, a winegrower. Mark and Eva’s marriage, full of early passion, had ended when Mark, in a misguided attempt at intimacy, confessed an affair. Eva’s marriage to the older, truly nice John had been calmer, but their love was genuine and deep. The children return to Eva’s house after a few days, but as the months pass, Mark finds himself wooing Eva through the kids, including Theo, for whom he forms quite a lovely attachment. Miller tips the story’s balance by flashing forward occasionally to the adult Daisy’s conversations with her therapist. While her parents flirt and skirt around each other and Emily goes off to college, Daisy, who has always lived in Emily’s shadow, is full of unexpressed depths of grief because John had been the one parent figure she felt really saw her for herself. When Duncan, the physically and emotionally damaged husband of Eva’s best friend, catches her pilfering from the cash register at Eva’s store, he insinuates himself into Daisy’s life. Unaware of her own emerging beauty, Daisy is extremely needy and vulnerable—and extremely angry. A twisted sexual relationship begins. Eva is too wrapped up in her own struggles to notice, but Mark, whom Eva has rebuffed as suitor, steps in and rescues Daisy, who is one tough cookie. The family reshapes itself.
Miller at her best: engrossing characters and a plot that turns unexpected corners.