An absorbing saga of 20th-century Korean experience, seen through the fate of four generations.
Lee (Free Food for Millionaires, 2007) built her debut novel around families of Korean-Americans living in New York. In her second novel, she traces the Korean diaspora back to the time of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. “History has failed us,” she writes in the opening line of the current epic, “but no matter.” She begins her tale in a village in Busan with an aging fisherman and his wife whose son is born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot. Nonetheless, he is matched with a fine wife, and the two of them run the boardinghouse he inherits from his parents. After many losses, the couple cherishes their smart, hardworking daughter, Sunja. When Sunja gets pregnant after a dalliance with a persistent, wealthy married man, one of their boarders—a sickly but handsome and deeply kind pastor—offers to marry her and take her away with him to Japan. There, she meets his brother and sister-in-law, a woman lovely in face and spirit, full of entrepreneurial ambition that she and Sunja will realize together as they support the family with kimchi and candy operations through war and hard times. Sunja’s first son becomes a brilliant scholar; her second ends up making a fortune running parlors for pachinko, a pinball-like game played for money. Meanwhile, her first son’s real father, the married rich guy, is never far from the scene, a source of both invaluable help and heartbreaking woe. As the destinies of Sunja’s children and grandchildren unfold, love, luck, and talent combine with cruelty and random misfortune in a deeply compelling story, with the troubles of ethnic Koreans living in Japan never far from view.
An old-fashioned epic whose simple, captivating storytelling delivers both wisdom and truth.
Castillo’s debut novel presents a portrait of the Filipino diaspora, told through the lens of a single family.
Revolving around Hero de Vera—a former rebel (with the scars to prove it) turned au pair of sorts in Milpitas, California—this is a book about identity but even more about standing up for something larger than oneself. The idea is implicit in that name, Hero, though Castillo pushes against our expectations by bestowing it upon a woman fighting patriarchy. Her employer, after all—her sponsor, really—is her uncle Pol, scion of an influential family. For the most part, Castillo tracks Hero’s experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area, highlighting two sustaining relationships: the first with Roni, her uncle’s school-age daughter, and the second with Rosalyn, with whom she falls in love. The most important relationship in the book, however, is the one she develops with herself. It’s not that Castillo is out to write a novel of transformation; Hero is on a journey, certainly, but it’s hard to say, exactly, that the circumstances of her existence change. And yet, this is the point, or one of them, that this sharply rendered work of fiction seeks to address. “She wasn’t killed…or didn’t kill herself,” the character reflects. “Tragedy could be unsensational.” Unsensational, yes—much like daily life. Castillo is a vivid writer, and she has a real voice: vernacular and fluid, with a take-no-prisoners edge. At the same time, she complicates her narrative by breaking out of it in a variety of places—both by deftly incorporating languages such as Tagalog and Ilocano and through the use of flashback or backstory, in which we learn what happened to Hero before she left the Philippines. There are also two second-person chapters (the rest is told in third-person) that further complicate the point of view. Here, we encounter Pol’s wife, Paz, who untangles the intricate ties of family, and Rosalyn, who explains the vagaries of love. Through it all, we have a sense that what we are reading is part of a larger story that stretches beyond the borders of the book. “As usual,” Castillo writes, “you’re getting ahead of yourself, but there isn’t enough road in the world for how ahead of yourself you need to get.”
Beautifully written, emotionally complex, and deeply moving, Castillo's novel reminds us both that stories may be all we have to save us and also that this may never be enough.
A family saga that asks what it means to be American.
Urrea (The Water Museum, 2015, etc.) tells the story of Miguel Angel de la Cruz, or Big Angel, who must bury his mother as he himself is dying. Before his death, though, he means to celebrate one last birthday. “He wanted a birthday, pues. A last birthday,” Angel’s sister explains, and from that simple statement, the entire book unfolds. Urrea is an accomplished writer of fiction and nonfiction; his novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter was inspired by his great-aunt, the Mexican mystic Teresita Urrea, and The Devils’ Highway: A True Story, which recounts a catastrophic border crossing, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Here, he returns to his family as source, modeling Big Angel, or at least his circumstance, on his oldest brother, who died a month after their mother’s funeral. The result is a novel that is knowing and intimate, funny and tragic at once. The de la Cruzes are a big clan, messy and complex. The members have competing agendas, secrets, but at the same time, all share a commitment to family. “All we do, mija,” Big Angel tells his daughter, “is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.” It’s impossible to read that line (or, for that matter, this novel) without reflecting on the current American moment, in which Mexican-American families such as the de la Cruzes are often vilified. But if Urrea’s novel is anything, it is an American tale. It is a celebration, although Urrea is no sentimentalist; he knows the territory in which his narrative unfolds. There is tragedy here and danger; these are real people, living in the real world. Still, even when that world intrudes, it only heightens the strength, the resilience, of the family. “He thought he was still alive to make his amends,” Urrea writes of Big Angel. “He thought he was alive to try one last hour to unite his family. But now he knew…he was alive to save his boy’s life. His youngest son.”
Even in death, Urrea shows, we never lose our connection to one another, which is the point of this deft and moving book.
A decade in the life of a smart, earnest young woman trying to make her way in the world.
On Greer Kadetsky’s first weekend at Ryland College—a mediocre school she’s attending because her parents were too feckless to fill out Yale’s financial aid form—she gets groped at a frat party. This isn’t the life she was meant to lead: “You [need] to find a way to make your world dynamic,” she thinks. Then Greer meets Faith Frank, a second-wave feminist icon who’s come to speak at Ryland. During the question-and-answer period, Greer stands up to recount her assault and the college’s lackluster response, and, later, Faith gives her a business card. Like a magical amulet in a fairy tale, that card leads Greer to a whole new life: After graduation, she gets a job working for Faith’s foundation, Loci, which sponsors conferences about women’s issues. That might not be the most cutting-edge approach to feminism, Greer knows, but it will help her enter the conversation. Wolitzer (Belzhar, 2014, etc.) likes to entice readers with strings of appealing adjectives and juicy details: Faith is both “rich, sophisticated, knowledgeable” and “intense and serious and witty,” and she always wears a pair of sexy suede boots. It’s easy to fall in love with her, and with Greer, and with Greer’s boyfriend, Cory, and her best friend, Zee: They’re all deep, interesting characters who want to find ways to support themselves while doing good in the world and having meaningful, pleasurable lives. They have conversations about issues like “abortion rights, and the composition of the Senate, and about human trafficking”; they wrestle with the future of feminism, with racism and classism. None of them is perfect. “Likability has become an issue for women lately,” Greer tells an English professor while she’s still at Ryland, and Wolitzer has taken up the challenge. Her characters don’t always do the right thing, and though she has compassion for all of them, she’s ruthless about revealing their compromises and treacheries. This symphonic book feels both completely up-to-the-minute and also like a nod to 1970s feminist classics such as The Women’s Room, with a can't-put-it-down plot that illuminates both its characters and larger social issues.
Another ambitious change of pace for the versatile and accomplished Makkai (The Hundred-Year House, 2014, etc.), whose characters wrangle with the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic at its height and in its aftermath.
In the first of two intertwined storylines, Yale and his live-in lover, Charlie, attend an unofficial wake for a dead friend, Nico, held simultaneously with his funeral service because his Cuban-American family has made it clear they don’t want any gay people there. It’s 1985, and Makkai stingingly re-creates the atmosphere of fear, prejudice, and sanctimonious finger-pointing surrounding the mortally afflicted gay community, even in a big city like Chicago. Nico’s younger sister, Fiona, has rejected their family and attached herself to his friends, with emotional consequences that become apparent in the second storyline, set 30 years later in Paris. As is often the case with paired stories, one of them initially seems more compelling, in this case Makkai’s vivid chronicle of Yale’s close-knit circle, of his fraught relationship with the obsessively jealous Charlie, and his pursuit of a potentially career-making donation for the university art gallery where he works in development. Fiona’s opaque feelings of guilt and regret as she searches for her estranged daughter, Claire, aren’t as engaging at first, but the 2015 narrative slowly unfolds to connect with the ordeals of Yale and his friends until we see that Fiona too is a traumatized survivor of the epidemic, bereft of her brother and so many other people she loved, to her lasting damage. As Makkai acknowledges in an author’s note, when a heterosexual woman writes a novel about AIDS, some may feel she has crossed “the line between allyship and appropriation.” On the contrary, her rich portraits of an array of big personalities and her affecting depiction of random, horrific death faced with varying degrees of gallantry make this tender, keening novel an impressive act of imaginative empathy.
As compulsively readable as it is thoughtful and moving: an unbeatable fictional combination.
A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.
“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.
Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.
A man’s inability to be honest about his sexuality has scandalous, and brutally public, consequences for several generations.
At the outset of this novel, in 1940, all the gay men and at least one straight woman in a literary club at Oxford are infatuated with beautiful David Sparsholt, a first-year engineering student who initially seems oblivious to the attention. One student, Evert Dax, the son of famous, inexplicably bestselling novelist A.V. Dax, is determined to bed Sparsholt. (Ostensibly straight Freddie Green, whose memoir about his years at Oxford makes up the first section of the novel, claims Sparsholt has a “dull square face.”) Sparsholt’s straight bona fides (he has a girlfriend) soon come into thrilling question. The students watch warily at night for German bombs in the World War II–era opening of the novel, which soon transitions to 1966, when Sparsholt’s 14-year-old son, Johnny, lusts after Bastien, a French exchange student who's living with his family. Johnny is the heart of the story, and in the ensuing sections taking place over many decades he gives Hollinghurst the opportunity to track the vast, transformative changes in gay life since David Sparsholt attended Oxford. Johnny is a fascinating character: a painter who is sensitive, proudly bohemian, sometimes rejected in love, and still eager for love at an advanced age, but always calmly aware of who he is and the dangers of trying to be someone else. It’s a lesson he learned from his father’s arrogant belief that he could skirt the restrictive, heterosexual mores of pre–sexual liberation England. If this plot sounds like it couldn't possibly have been the work of a Man Booker Prize–winning author, part of Hollinghurt’s (The Stranger's Child, 2011, etc.) bold talent in this novel, as in his previous work, is to make it evident that lust, sex, and who does what with whom in the bedroom (and even how) are fitting, and insightful, subjects of literary fiction.
A novel full of life and perception; you end the book not minding that the actual Sparsholt affair gets just the barest of outlines.
If Thomas Pynchon and Elmore Leonard had conspired to write North Dallas Forty, this might be the result: a madcap, football-obsessed tale of crossed destinies and criminal plots gone awry.
You know you’re in fictional territory when the Dallas Cowboys are portrayed as a winning team; the world is veritably upside down when things like that happen. That’s one of many conceits de la Pava (Personae, 2011, etc.), New York City public defender by day and shaper of the modern canon by night, plays with in this loopy yarn, which embraces surrealist art, the law, theoretical physics, politics, and just about everything else under the sun. But especially football: At the heart of de la Pava’s shaggy dog tale, overlong but not overworked, is an unabashed love for pigskin. Young Nina Gill hauls up the underdog Paterson Pork team from deepest obscurity in a scenario out of a gridiron version of King Lear after having been shoved aside from inheriting said Cowboys after her father dies; in grim revenge, Nina decides to take the indoor-playing Pork to the NFL championship, an impossibility, of course. She’s an encyclopedia of the game: “Before ’seventy-eight defensive backs could hit receivers with impunity all the way down the field provided the ball hadn’t been thrown,” she tells sidekick Dia Nouveau, who’s scrambling to keep up with “the various permutations of football knowledge that woman is essentially compelling her to acquire.” Dia has bigger fish to fry, though, and so does Nuno DeAngeles, street philosopher and would-be crime lord, who’s gotten himself tucked away on Rikers Island and finds that his “only ally now is René Descartes,” inasmuch as Cartesian dualism allows his mind to flow freely out into the boroughs to work mischief until his body can catch up. Parts of the story are seemingly the standard aspirational sports rah-rah, but turned on their head, and the caper that plays out alongside Nina’s championship run, laced with philosophy and cornerbacks, is a blast to watch unfold.
A whirling vortex of a novel, confusing, misdirecting, and surprising—and a lot of fun.
Three men investigate the increasingly strange circumstances surrounding their old friend’s disappearance from a small Italian town.
Mauro, Tony, Fabio, and Art have been friends since their school days in a southern Italian village. When Art, their ringleader, suggests that they return each year on the same date to meet up, they agree, and for 17 years they keep their promise. But when Art is a no-show, memories quickly surface of a bizarre incident from their teen years when he wandered into an olive grove and vanished for seven days. Though Art returned, he was somehow altered, and the town was torn apart by rumors. Dimitri—a well-known fantasy author in Italy who is making his English-language debut here—alternates the story from the perspectives of lawyer and family man Mauro; Tony, a surgeon whose homosexuality makes him an outsider in the strict Catholic village; and caddish fashion photographer Fabio. The reader gets a bird’s eye view of the secrets the men keep from each other, both about their complicated presents and their different understandings of Art’s first disappearance years ago. Is the Mafia involved? The local priest? The mentally ill woman Art was seeing? What of the rumor that Art healed a terminally ill girl before his latest vanishing? And how is his absence tied in to an odd manuscript he was writing called The Book of Hidden Things? In lesser hands, this blend of detective story, organized crime thriller, and supernatural investigation would feel like a grab bag of plot devices, but Dimitri has created a thrilling spectacle that also manages to point poignantly at the way the landscapes we grow up in shape us in ways even beyond our understanding.
A deeply felt look at the idea of home, clothed as a popcornworthy page-turner.