This novel about a couple that agrees to have an open marriage, for a limited time only and while adhering to certain rules, is a polished, amusing, and highly entertaining take on modern relationships, parenthood, and suburbia.
When Owen and Lucy—an attractive young married couple who, shortly after their on-the-spectrum 5-year-old son, Wyatt, was born, swapped their hip New York City existence for life in a small, “pretty Norman Rockwell-y” Hudson Valley town—first hear, one boozy night, about Brooklyn friends’ plan to allow each other to have sex with other people, they are scandalized. But soon, they find themselves drawing up a set of rules spelling out for themselves a similar arrangement, a finite period of infidelity, a six-month marital “rumspringa,” Owen calls it: no falling in love, no talking about it or snooping, no sex with anyone in their crowd, no looking too happy, and definitely no leaving. “We’re joking about this, right?” Owen asks. “Yes, we’re joking,” says Lucy. But then, it turns out, no, they aren’t. What follows is a superfun, pleasingly light romp through the promise and pitfalls of marital infidelity, the trials and rewards of parenting, and the joys and frustrations of life in an upscale small town for the transplanted urban couple. The premise may sound contrived, its subject matter trite and fluffy, and its characters overly stereotypical, and it likely would be in less able hands. But Dunn, an accomplished TV writer and producer (Murphy Brown, Spin City, Bunheads, American Housewife) who has written two previous novels (The Big Love, 2004, and Secrets to Happiness, 2009), is a total pro—and the book is smartly conceived, sharply written, perfectly paced, and, even at its most madcap moments, entirely believable and engaging. Despite Owen and Lucy’s self-made troubles, they are eminently sympathetic and disarmingly appealing, as are the parade of amusing supporting characters and plotlines. (More Sunny Bang, please!) Chick lit? Perhaps, but, witty and well-written, it’s the most satisfying sort—a true guilty pleasure.
Dunn’s dryly humorous story about a marriage that goes dangerously off-road never loses its groove.
The real-life subject of an iconic work of art is given her own version of a canvas—space in which to reveal her tough personality, bruised heart, and “artist’s soul.”
The figure at the center of Andrew Wyeth’s celebrated painting Christina’s World has her back to the viewer, but Kline (Orphan Train, 2013, etc.) turns her to face the reader, simultaneously equipping her with a back story and a lyrical voice. Meet Christina Olson, “a middle-aged spinster” who narrates her life in segments, dodging back and forth between her origins and childhood and her adult life, all of this material rooted in the large Maine house built by her family, whose early members, relatives of Nathaniel Hawthorne, fled Salem in 1743. Born in 1893, Christina is a clever schoolgirl whose opportunity to train as a teacher will be obstructed by her parents, who need her to work at home. The progressive bone disease which makes mobility difficult and brings constant pain scarcely reduces her ceaseless domestic workload. At age 20 she has one tantalizing chance at love, but after that Christina’s horizons shrink until the day in 1939 when a friend introduces her to 22-year-old Andrew Wyeth. Christina, now 46, discovers a kindred spirit and Wyeth, a kind of muse whom he will paint several times. Kline lovingly evokes the restricted life of a sensitive woman forced to renounce the norms of intimacy and self-advancement while using her as a lens to capture the simple beauty of the American farming landscape: “The flat nails that secure the weather clapboards, the drip of water from the rusty cistern, cold blue light through a cracked window.”
It’s thin on plot, but Kline’s reading group–friendly novel delivers a character portrait that is painterly, sensuous, and sympathetic.
Fire and ice to begin, fire and ice to end. And it’s not going to end well, friends: first come the giants, then the all-ravening wolf, and then….
The ancient Norse had a cheerless view of the world: the gods are jealous, the elements fierce, the enemies—trolls and giants among them—many, and if you’re lucky you’ll be killed in battle and gathered up to Valhalla, “and there you will drink and fight and feast and battle, with Odin as your leader.” So writes Gaiman (The View from the Cheap Seats, 2016, etc.), famed for his intelligent fantasy novels but long under the spell of that great body of myth. As an English schoolboy, he reveled in Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen, a somewhat stodgy but valuable collection (as he notes, as a creature of his time, he was introduced to the Norse by way of the Mighty Thor comic books); now, as an adult, he gets to retell the tales, drawing from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, sagas in verse, and other sources. As he notes, rightly, that body of work is incomplete and perhaps corrupted by later Christian intrusions, so that it has to be viewed with some degree of suspicion; by the same token, he writes, so many of the goddesses in particular have been “lost, or buried, or forgotten,” overshadowed by the better-known likes of Thor, Odin, and Loki and all their busy kinfolk. Gaiman writes assuredly and evocatively and with a precise eye for the atmospheric detail: “Niflheim was colder than cold, and the murky mist that cloaked everything hung heavily,” he intones, catching the ancient alliteration. There’s plenty of mayhem and gore, and once the gods have had their fun, everything comes “crashing down and crumbling into ash and devastation.” But before that happens and Ragnarok descends, we have this lively book to cheer us along.
Superb. Just the thing for the literate fantasy lover and the student of comparative religion and mythology alike.
In an intellectually provocative follow-up to Sapiens (2015), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) looks to the future.
Throughout history, humans prayed for deliverance from famine, disease, and war with spotty success. For centuries, prophets agreed that all of the suffering was “an integral part of God’s cosmic plan.” Today, obesity kills more humans than starvation, old age more than disease, and suicide more than murder. Having reduced three horsemen of the apocalypse to technical problems, what will humans do next? Harari’s answer: we will become gods—not perfect but like Greek or Hindu gods: immortal and possessing superpowers but with some foibles. Although an atheist, the author does not demean religion. “Up until modern times,” he writes, “most cultures believed that humans play a part in some cosmic plan…devised by the omnipotent gods, or by the eternal laws of nature, and humankind could not change it. The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power.” Even without this agency, this belief gave our lives meaning: disasters happened for a reason, and everything would work out for the best. Deeply satisfying, this remains a core belief of most humans, including nonchurchgoers. Since the Enlightenment, the explosion of knowledge has produced dazzling progress but limited the influence of God. Many thinkers—if not the general public—agree that there is no cosmic plan but also that humans are no longer humble victims of fate. This is humanism, which grants us immense power, the benefits of which are obvious but come at a painful price. Modern culture is the most creative in history, but, faced with “a universe devoid of meaning,” it’s “plagued with more existential angst than any previous culture.” As in Sapiens, smoothly tackles thorny issues and leads us through “our current predicament and our possible futures.”
A relentlessly fascinating book that is sure to become—and deserves to be—a bestseller.
A galaxy perches on the edge of war when word goes out that the crown princess has been assassinated.
Except she hasn’t been. An assassination attempt from a shocking source has Rhee running from planet to planet, disguised, untangling threads of deception and betrayal. She’s bent on revenge on the man who assassinated her family years ago, which left her the last Ta’an of 12 generations of warrior emperors—but he may not be who she thought. In another thread, in breathlessly alternating chapters, Aly finds himself tossed from his life in the military (and reluctant star of a reality program) into a desperate quest to absolve himself from the charge of assassinating Rhee. It’s no coincidence that Aly, the accused, is black and belongs to an oppressed refugee group; Rhee has the tan skin of the ruling group. Never faltering in her fast pace and nuanced characterization, Belleza weaves together many complex layers: the recent Great War (massacres, famines, clouds of chemical gas that scorched whole cities to dust); racism, roundups, and imprisonments; the roles of media and propaganda; revenge, guilt, grief, and obligation; and disturbing moral questions about privacy and technology, especially regarding the cubes implanted in most people’s minds to orient them geographically and store their thoughts and memories. This is a multiplanet, multiculture, multitech world and a timely tale.
An exceptionally satisfying series opener.
(Science fiction. 14-18)
Dread and lassitude twist into a spare and stunning portrait of a marital estrangement.
At the end of this unsettling psychological novel, the narrator suggests that “perhaps wife and husband and marriage itself are only words that conceal much more unstable realities, more turbulent than can be contained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing.” Kitamura’s third work of fiction builds into a hypnotic meditation on infidelity and the unknowability of one’s spouse. In precise and muted prose, the entire story unspools in the coolly observant mind of a young woman, a translator. She is estranged from Christopher Wallace, her “handsome and wealthy” husband of five years. He is a relentless adulterer; the narrator herself is now living with another man. The novel begins with a phone call from Isabella, a hostile and unpleasant mother-in-law, petulant that she can’t reach her only son and ignorant of the separation. Christopher has decamped to rural Greece, and Isabella insists her daughter-in-law leave England to go after him. Thinking it time to ask for a divorce, she agrees. In the remote fishing village of Gerolimenas, there are grim portents: stray dogs, high unemployment, a landscape charred from a season of wildfires, and the hostility of a hotel receptionist who appears to have slept with Christopher. Each of 13 taut chapters turns the screw; at the beginning of the seventh there is a murder. Kitamura leaves it unsolved. Instead of delivering a whodunit, the author plucks a bouquet of unforeseen but psychologically piercing consequences. The narrator thinks, “One of the problems of happiness—and I’d been very happy, when Christopher and I were first engaged—is that it makes you both smug and unimaginative.” As this harrowing story ends, her life is diminished and her imagination is cruelly awake.
A minutely observed novel of infidelity unsettles its characters and readers.
Hamid (Discontent and Its Civilizations, 2014, etc.) crafts a richly imaginative tale of love and loss in the ashes of civil war.
The country—well, it doesn’t much matter, one of any number that are riven by sectarian violence, by militias and fundamentalists and repressive government troops. It’s a place where a ponytailed spice merchant might vanish only to be found headless, decapitated “nape-first with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort.” Against this background, Nadia and Saeed don’t stand much of a chance; she wears a burka but only “so men don’t fuck with me,” but otherwise the two young lovers don’t do a lot to try to blend in, spending their days ingesting “shrooms” and smoking a little ganga to get away from the explosions and screams, listening to records that the militants have forbidden, trying to be as unnoticeable as possible, Saeed crouching in terror at the “flying robots high above in the darkening sky.” Fortunately, there’s a way out: some portal, both literal and fantastic, that the militants haven’t yet discovered and that, for a price, leads outside the embattled city to the West. “When we migrate,” writes Hamid, “we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” True, and Saeed and Nadia murder a bit of themselves in fleeing, too, making new homes in London and then San Francisco while shed of their old, innocent selves and now locked in descending unhappiness, sharing a bed without touching, just two among countless nameless and faceless refugees in an uncaring new world. Saeed and Nadia understand what would happen if millions of people suddenly turned up in their country, fleeing a war far away. That doesn’t really make things better, though. Unable to protect each other, fearful but resolute, their lives turn in unexpected ways in this new world.
One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory and a book to savor even while despairing of its truths.
Sharp social commentary through the tragic story of a young woman’s trial for mass murder.
Swedish novelist Giolito begins her English-language debut with a powerful view of a crime scene. To the narrator, 18-year-old Maja, her fellow classmates are still in the present tense, the horror not yet real. As she tells her tale we understand that she is at the center of a school shooting perpetrated by her boyfriend, Sebastian Fagerman, and the question is whether she is complicit. Both teenagers come from privileged backgrounds, she from a loving home she has no patience for, and he the son of "the richest man in Sweden," who verbally abuses him. Giolito keeps the narrative moving quickly, alternating between the present tense of Maja's jail cell and the courtroom and her memories of parties and travels with her jet-setting boyfriend, though as Maja says, “there are no chapters in this mess.” That mess takes in the uneasy place of race in modern-day Sweden and the voracious press that amplifies the details of everything in Maja’s young life. There is no suspense in the shooting of Amanda, Maja’s best friend, or of Sebastian. She did it and admits to it. The literary anticipation here is in the telling of the tale, the facts that turn the story to something else, and yes, the verdict. The rhythm, tone, and language are just right, due in great part to the fine translation by Willson-Broyles.
Giolito gives us the unsettling monologue of a teenage girl as she works her way through her role in murder. It is a splendid work of fiction.
The story of a bleak, isolated Irish island where everyone believes in, and justifiably fears, fairies.
St. Brigid, a saint often conflated with a druid goddess of the same name, chose the remote (and fictitious) isle that bears her name as a haven for her order of nuns. In 1960, a prologue reveals, St. Brigid’s, which lacks electricity, telephone, or any other modern convenience, is about to be evacuated, its inhabitants—women, children, and one elderly man—resettled in council housing on the mainland. The main plot begins a year earlier, when a “Yank” named Brigid arrives to claim her late uncle’s cottage and land. Brigid plans to stay despite the fact that the islanders still live as their ancestors have for centuries: fishing, farming, heating and cooking with peat fires. The first to welcome Brigid are Emer and her young son, Niall. Emer, who, as a child, tried to consort with fairies and lost an eye as a result, needs a friend: her pervasive aura of gloom has alienated all but her closest kin. Brigid inherited her gift of healing hands from her mother, who was, like Emer, reputed to be “touched” by fairies. Back stories swirl, heightening the stakes: Brigid, who has been an orphan, a midwife, and a child bride, is now nearly 40, infertile, and desperate to be a mother. She hopes to locate the spring of St. Brigid, which is said to work miracles—but the islanders keep the location of these waters a secret. Emer’s sister Rose married Austin, the man Emer loved, and has a large brood, while Emer had to settle for Austin’s brother Patch, a loutish drunk. Her biggest fear is that the fairies covet Niall and, as is their wont with certain children, plan to steal him when he turns 7 and leave a changeling in his place. Vividly and soulfully described, love and curses, roiling in a supernatural stew, bring about the large and small calamities that will render St. Brigid’s uninhabitable.
Magical realism of the best kind, utterly devoid of whimsy.