Dysfunctional siblings in New York wig out when the eldest blows their shared inheritance.
In an arresting prologue to this generous, absorbing novel, Leo Plumb leaves his cousin’s wedding early, drunk and high, with one of the waitresses and has a car accident whose exact consequences are withheld for quite some time. To make his troubles go away, Leo pillages a $2 million account known as “The Nest,” left by his father for the four children to share after the youngest of them turns 40, though in a sweet running joke, everyone keeps forgetting exactly when that is. Leo’s siblings have been counting heavily on this money to resolve their financial troubles and are horrified to learn that their mother has let Leo burn almost all of it. A meeting is called at Grand Central Oyster Bar—one of many sharply observed New York settings—to discuss Leo’s plans to pay them back. Will Leo even show? Three days out of rehab, he barely makes it through Central Park. But he does appear and promises to make good, and despite his history of unreliability, the others remain enough under the spell of their charismatic brother to fall for it. The rest of the book is a wise, affectionate study of how expectations play out in our lives—not just financial ones, but those that control our closest relationships. Sweeney’s endearing characters are quirky New Yorkers all: Bea Plumb is a widowed writer who tanked after three stories that made her briefly one of “New York’s Newest Voices: Who You Should Be Reading.” Jack Plumb, known as “Leo Lite” in high school to his vast irritation, is a gay antiques dealer married to a lawyer; truly desperate for cash, he becomes involved in a shady deal involving a work of art stolen from the ruins of the World Trade Center. Melody, the youngest, lives in the suburbs in a house she’s about to lose and is obsessed with tracking her teenage twins using an app called Stalkerville. The insouciance with which they thwart her is another metaphor for the theme of this lively novel.
A fetching debut from an author who knows her city, its people, and their hearts.
A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.
Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”
A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.
From Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout (The Burgess Boys, 2013, etc.), a short, stark novel about the ways we break and maintain the bonds of family.
The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside—but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer. She marries a man from a comfortable background who can’t ever quite quiet her demons; his efforts to bridge the gap created by their wildly different upbringings occupy some of the novel’s saddest pages. As in Olive Kittredge (2008), Strout peels back layers of denial and self-protective brusqueness to reveal the love that Lucy’s mother feels but cannot express. In fewer than 200 intense, dense pages, she considers class prejudice, the shame that poverty brings, the AIDS epidemic, and the healing powers—and the limits—of art. Most of all, this is a story of mothers and daughters: Lucy’s ambivalent feelings for the mother who failed to protect her are matched by her own guilt for leaving the father of her two girls, who have never entirely forgiven her. Later sections, in which Lucy’s dying mother tells her “I need you to leave” and the father who brutalized her says, “What a good girl you’ve always been,” are almost unbearably moving, with their pained recognition that the mistakes we make are both irreparable and subject to repentance. The book does feel a bit abbreviated, but that’s only because the characters and ideas are so compelling we want to hear more from the author who has limned them so sensitively.
Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has never required improvement.
In Greenidge’s debut novel, an African-American family is hired by a private research institute to “adopt” a chimpanzee and teach the animal sign language.
Charlotte Freeman, the older of two teenage daughters, is less than enthused about her parents’ decision—which means moving from their south Boston home to take up residence at the remote Toneybee Institute for Ape Research. Greenidge proves herself a master of dialogue, which helps her craft engaging, well-drawn characters. "All our pets die," Charlotte says, protesting the imminent move-in with the chimpanzee. "We’re no good with animals." But Charlotte’s mother, Laurel, maintains the chimpanzee is not meant to be a pet: "He’ll be like a brother to you," she proclaims; as a sign language teacher, Laurel is the one who will be responsible for the chimpanzee’s education. But as the book cuts between the present and the past, the racially exploitative history of the research institute is revealed, and the family’s life spirals out of control. This is not surprising: there's a long racist history in the United States of comparing black Americans to monkeys—beginning with the exhibitions of Africans side by side with orangutans in the monkey houses of zoos in the early part of the 20th century and leading up to the present day, when African-Americans, including President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, are still repeatedly called “apes” and “monkeys.” But with humor, irony, and wit, Greenidge tackles this sensitive subject and crafts a light but deeply respectful take on this heavy aspect of America’s treatment of black people. This is a timely work, full of disturbing but necessary observations.
A vivid and poignant coming-of-age story that is also an important exploration of family, race, and history.
A terrorist bombing in Delhi powers this exploration of radicalization, politics, and religion.
The second novel by Mahajan (Family Planning, 2008) turns on two families transformed by a 1996 explosion in an open-air market. The Khuranas, who are Hindu, lost two young sons in the blast, while the neighboring Ahmeds, who are Muslim, nearly lost their son, Mansoor. Though Mansoor was not religious growing up, he still absorbs the prejudices of Indians and, later, the Americans he meets as a college student in the United States. He survived the bombing but suffered wrist injuries that make it all but impossible for him to pursue a career as a programmer. From such frustrations, Mahajan suggests, are the seeds of terrorism sown. (Sexual repression and unrequited love play no small roles, too.) Though Mansoor is the focus, Mahajan ably shifts the point of view to the killed boys’ father, Vikas, who tries to channel his mourning into a documentary; Shockie, the bomb maker worn down by his job; and Ayub, a Muslim activist whose nonviolent sympathies slowly erode. Mahajan’s effort to make a thriller out of the story, climaxing in another bombing attempt, can feel pat—he oversells the point that radicalism makes for unlikely bedfellows. But he’s strong at exploring the very long shockwaves of small-scale violence: though the market bombings in India don’t kill as many as 9/11, Mahajan argues that they have a more devastating cruelty for upending lives to no useful political purpose. Small bombs “concentrate the pain on the lives of a few,” one radical says. “Better to kill generously.” The wrong conclusion, of course, but the novel shows how some arrive at such callous postures.
An engaging if plot-thick novel that’s alert to the intersection of the emotional and political.
A groundbreaking work on the central role of housing in the lives of the poor.
Based on two years (2008-2009) spent embedded with eight poor families in Milwaukee, Desmond (Sociology and Social Science/Harvard Univ.; On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, 2007, etc.) delivers a gripping, novelistic narrative exploring the ceaseless cycle of “making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless” as experienced by adults and children, both black and white, surviving in trailer parks and ghettos. “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty,” writes the author. Once rare, eviction is now commonplace for millions of Americans each year, most often as a result of insufficient government support, rising rent and utility costs, and stagnant incomes. Having gained unusual access to these families, Desmond immerses us in the lives of Sherrena Tarver, a teacher-turned-landlord who rents inner-city units to the black poor; Tobin Charney, who nets more than $400,000 yearly on 131 poorly maintained trailers rented (at $550 a month) to poor whites; and disparate tenants who struggle to make rent for cramped, decrepit units plagued by poor plumbing, lack of heat, and code violations. The latter include Crystal, 18, raised in more than two dozen foster homes, who moved in with three garbage bags of clothes, and Arleen, a single mother, who contacted more than 80 apartment owners in her search for a new home. Their frantic experiences—they spend an astonishing 70 to 80 percent of their incomes on rent—make for harrowing reading, interspersed with moving moments revealing their resilience and humanity. “All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary,” writes Desmond, who bolsters his stories with important new survey findings. He argues that universal housing vouchers and publicly funded legal services for the evicted (90 percent lack attorneys in housing courts) would help alleviate this growing, often overlooked housing crisis.
This stunning, remarkable book—a scholar’s 21st-century How the Other Half Lives—demands a wide audience.
An ingénue from the Midwest learns the ways of the world, and the flesh, during her year as a back waiter at a top Manhattan restaurant.
A flurry of publicity surrounded the acquisition of this book, which was pitched by an MFA–grad waitress to an editor dining at one of her tables. Danler’s debut novel takes place behind the scenes of a restaurant in Union Square whose rigid hierarchy, arcane codes of behavior, and basis in servitude and manual labor makes it less like a modern workplace than the royal court of 18th-century France—but with tattoos and enough cocaine to rival Jay McInerney. There’s even a Dangerous Liaisons–type love triangle with the beautiful, naïve young narrator at its apex, batted between the mysterious, brilliant waitress who teaches her about wine and the dissolute, magnetic bartender who teaches her about oysters. The older woman says things like, “I know you. I remember you from my youth. You contain multitudes.” The older man “was bisexual, he slept with everyone, he slept with no one. He was an ex-heroin addict, he was sober, he was always a little drunk.” What 22-year-old could ever resist them? The writing is mostly incandescent, with visceral and gorgeous descriptions of flavors, pitch-perfect overheard dialogue, deep knowledge of food, wine, and the restaurant business, and only occasional lapses into unintentional pretentiousness. From her very first sentences—“You will develop a palate. A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again”—Danler aims to mesmerize, to seduce, to fill you with sensual cravings. She also offers the rare impassioned defense of Britney Spears.
Prentiss’ sweeping debut follows three intertwining lives through the swirling energy, burning excitement, and crushing disappointment of New York City’s rapidly shifting art world at the dawn of the 1980s.
It’s Dec. 31, 1979, and James Bennett, a synesthetic rising star of art criticism, and his also-brilliant pregnant wife are toasting the new decade at the kind of swanky art-scene party they prefer to avoid. Also at the party: painter Raul Engales, a charismatic Argentinian expatriate who's done his best to erase his past life and is now poised, though he doesn’t know it yet, to become the darling of the art world. And: in a bar downtown later that night, Raul catches the (gorgeous) eye of 21-year-old Lucy Marie Olliason, recently transplanted from Ketchum, Idaho, in love with the city, and ready to fall in love with the artists in it. Their stories crash into each other like dominoes—the critic, the artist, and the muse—their separate futures and personal tragedies inextricably linked. The particulars of their connections, romantic and artistic, are too big and too poetic to be entirely plausible, but then, this is not a slice-of-life novel: this is a portrait of an era, an intoxicating Manhattan fairy tale. Prentiss’ characters—rich, nuanced, satisfyingly complicated—are informed not only by their emotional lives, but also by their intellectual and artistic ones; their relationships to art are as lively and essential as their relationships to each other. But while the novel is elegantly infused with an ambient sense of impending loss—this is New York on the cusp of drastic gentrification—it miraculously manages to dodge the trap of easy nostalgia, thanks in large part to Prentiss’ wry humor.
As affecting as it is absorbing. A thrilling debut.
A young Dominican girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn forges a relationship with a white woman living in a bucolic upstate town and learns to love horses and respect herself.
Eleven-year-old Velvet has a soft name, but there’s nothing even remotely plush about her life in a rough part of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Abused (mostly, but not only, verbally) by her mother, a tough immigrant, Velvet has little to call her own (she keeps her treasured objects—a shell, a dried sea horse, a broken keychain doll—in an old cotton-ball box in the back of a closet) and few friends, almost no one she can trust. Velvet’s mother clearly prefers her 6-year-old son, Dante, singing him to sleep at night with her back to Velvet in the family’s shared bed. Instead of comfort and cuddles, Velvet gets the message that she’s “no good”—not that it’s really her fault; it’s just that her blood is bad. While Velvet craves her mother’s love and attention, Ginger, a 47-year-old sometime artist recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, an abusive relationship, and the death of her troubled sister, finds herself yearning for a child. Now living a comfortable life in upstate New York with Paul, her college-professor husband, Ginger has decided to “test the waters” of adoption by hosting a Fresh Air Fund kid for a couple of weeks, a commitment that stretches far longer and deeper. That’s how Velvet and Ginger meet, and it's also how Velvet meets a mistrustful and mistreated horse at the stable next door to Ginger's house, the horse the others call “Fugly Girl” and she renames “Fiery Girl,” whom she will tame and train, and who will do the same for her. Alternating primarily between Velvet's and Ginger’s perspectives, with occasional observations from other characters, National Book Award finalist Gaitskill (Veronica, 2005, etc.) takes a premise that could have been preachy, sentimental, or simplistic—juxtaposing urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, brown and white—and makes it candid and emotionally complex, spare, real, and deeply affecting.
Gaitskill explores the complexities of love (mares, meres…) to bring us a novel that gallops along like a bracing bareback ride on a powerful thoroughbred.