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.
In 1974, a troubled Vietnam vet inherits a house from a fallen comrade and moves his family to Alaska.
After years as a prisoner of war, Ernt Allbright returned home to his wife, Cora, and daughter, Leni, a violent, difficult, restless man. The family moved so frequently that 13-year-old Leni went to five schools in four years. But when they move to Alaska, still very wild and sparsely populated, Ernt finds a landscape as raw as he is. As Leni soon realizes, “Everyone up here had two stories: the life before and the life now. If you wanted to pray to a weirdo god or live in a school bus or marry a goose, no one in Alaska was going to say crap to you.” There are many great things about this book—one of them is its constant stream of memorably formulated insights about Alaska. Another key example is delivered by Large Marge, a former prosecutor in Washington, D.C., who now runs the general store for the community of around 30 brave souls who live in Kaneq year-round. As she cautions the Allbrights, “Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next. There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” Hannah’s (The Nightingale, 2015, etc.) follow-up to her series of blockbuster bestsellers will thrill her fans with its combination of Greek tragedy, Romeo and Juliet–like coming-of-age story, and domestic potboiler. She re-creates in magical detail the lives of Alaska's homesteaders in both of the state's seasons (they really only have two) and is just as specific and authentic in her depiction of the spiritual wounds of post-Vietnam America.
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 recent Cambridge University doctorate debuts with a wrenching account of her childhood and youth in a strict Mormon family in a remote region of Idaho.
It’s difficult to imagine a young woman who, in her teens, hadn’t heard of the World Trade Center, the Holocaust, and virtually everything having to do with arts and popular culture. But so it was, as Westover chronicles here in fairly chronological fashion. In some ways, the author’s father was a classic anti-government paranoiac—when Y2K failed to bring the end of the world, as he’d predicted, he was briefly humbled. Her mother, though supportive at times, remained true to her beliefs about the subordinate roles of women. One brother was horrendously abusive to the author and a sister, but the parents didn’t do much about it. Westover didn’t go to public school and never received professional medical care or vaccinations. She worked in a junkyard with her father, whose fortunes rose and fell and rose again when his wife struck it rich selling homeopathic remedies. She remained profoundly ignorant about most things, but she liked to read. A brother went to Brigham Young University, and the author eventually did, too. Then, with the encouragement of professors, she ended up at Cambridge and Harvard, where she excelled—though she includes a stark account of her near breakdown while working on her doctoral dissertation. We learn about a third of the way through the book that she kept journals, but she is a bit vague about a few things. How, for example, did her family pay for the professional medical treatment of severe injuries that several of them experienced? And—with some justification—she is quick to praise herself and to quote the praise of others.
An astonishing account of deprivation, confusion, survival, and success.
Record of a childhood in flight from war and terror.
“I hated that I had to eat,” writes Wamariya. “I hated my stomach, I hated my needs.” Growing children are always hungry, but the author, forced at the age of 6 to flee her native Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, was for years as a refugee never able to satisfy those elemental needs. Intercut with her chronicle of experiences in a series of refugee camps are moments from her new life in America, where she landed at the age of 12, adopted into a welcoming home in a bit of fortune that she did not trust: “I was callous and cynical….I thought I could fool people into thinking that I was not profoundly bruised.” She had reason to worry, for on a six-year trail that passed through one African nation after another, she witnessed both generosity and depravity coupled with the constant worry that the older sister with whom she had fled would decide that she was too much of a burden and abandon her. She did not: Her sister’s presence through one fraught situation after another is a constant. Wamariya’s experiences adjusting to life in a country where, her sister declared, beer flowed from faucets and people owned six cars at a time are affecting, and there are some Cinderella moments in it, from being accepted to Yale to appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s show. But more, there are moments of potent self-reckoning; being a victim of trauma means that “you, as a person, are empty and flattened, and that violence, that theft, keeps you from embodying a life that feels like your own.” The work of finding home and feeling safe—it’s something that every foe of immigration ought to ponder; in that alone Wamariya’s narrative is valuable.
Not quite as attention-getting as memoirs by Ismail Beah or Scholastique Mukasonga, but a powerful record of the refugee experience all the same.
A mother and daughter with a strained relationship cope with the legacy of horrific violence.
Zara is the daughter of an interfaith marriage between her mostly secular parents: a Bosnian Muslim mother and white Catholic father. She is an ordinary American girl in many ways despite her fraught relationship with her traumatized mother—Zara knows that Nadja was a refugee, but her mother’s emotional distance has stopped her from learning the details of her past. An ISIS bombing at a Rhode Island farmers market leaves Zara wounded and her mother comatose but also opens up the path for Zara to finally understand her mother’s story. At the hospital she develops a close friendship with a spiritually seeking, biracial (Haitian and Irish) boy who is there visiting his grandmother. Interwoven chapters tell the story of Nadja in 1990s Bosnia, where she was an equally ordinary adolescent, treasuring mix tapes from her Serbian boyfriend. But the Bosnian War changes everything, and Nadja finds herself a survivor of genocide, having experienced crimes so horrific she’s blocked them out. Ethnic and religious conflict among modern Europeans contrasts sharply with racist Islamophobia in Zara’s contemporary New England. The search for faith and meaning pervades the story, but, disappointingly, the narrative too often filters spirituality through Western and Christian lenses. The long, complex history of the South Slavs is also overly simplified.
Despite its shortcomings, this important and timely novel is a painful, lovely exploration of mending a mother-daughter relationship.
(author’s note, bibliography, glossary)
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.
The interior life of a millennial Everywoman as she matures over the decades.
Prepare to fall in love with Leda, the wickedly relatable protagonist of Casale's funny, insightful, and deeply adorable debut. When we first meet her, she's a college student studying writing in Boston, dealing with her annoying friendships with women, her unsatisfying encounters with men, and the loneliness and self-doubt at the heart of it all. As she moves through life, we see all her experiences from both the outside and the inside. For example, in a coffee shop exchange with her friend Elle about their future plans, Elle announces that, as far as she's concerned, it's time for the fantasy of becoming a writer to end. She just wants to set "realistic goals," she says. "Leda recognized the familiar wave of cruelty and cattiness that lingered in the comment, a rich but common display of the unabashed hatred and simultaneous press for superiority any woman could feel for another woman at any given moment.” Soon after this meeting with her ultraslender friend, Leda decides to join a gym. "As she walked past all the men and their weights, she looked back at the women running and biking and stepping. Keep running ladies, she thought. You'll never get away." Much later in life she's in a dressing room, miserably trying on bathing suits. She has told the obnoxious salesgirl several times that her name is Leda, but the woman insists on calling her Lisa, shouting, " 'Lisa, how are the sizes working for you?' 'Fine.' I'll kill you, Karen. I'll kill you right now, so help me god." We follow Leda as she drifts away from her commitment to writing and toward her first serious relationship, relocating quite unhappily for her partner's career. One of the most moving and original parts of the book is when Leda becomes a mother and we can see how much her attitudes toward herself and other people have matured by the way she raises her own child. In fact, the depictions of Leda's connections to both her mother and her daughter are filled with love and warmth. This is so rare in contemporary fiction, it's almost hard to believe. But just as importantly, will she ever get around to reading Noam Chomsky?
So much fun, so smart, and ultimately profound and beautiful.
The daughter of two beautiful losers—a snakebit Jewish gambler and a chorus girl—comes of age in late 1930s Los Angeles and early 1950s Las Vegas.
A blonde, blue-eyed child of 6, Esme Silver has not yet been enrolled in school, which doesn't mean she’s not getting an education. She spends her days on the MGM lot with her mother and at the track with her father; she’s known to the regulars at both places. One of her rituals is to purchase lunch at the track’s concession stand for her father and herself, four hot dogs for 40 cents; the counter lady often combs out her hair and washes her face. “I can only imagine what compelled her ministrations, what I must have looked like, hair unbrushed, shirt on backwards, my neck strung with a hundred necklaces in imitation of my mother, a silk flower pinned to my wild coiffure.” In one track of this story, 20-year-old Esme recalls the events of 1939 that culminated in her moving with her father to Las Vegas, where he was employed by Ben “Bugsy” Siegel. The second track follows Esme’s own career in Vegas, which takes off when she's noticed at age 15 by Nate Stein, an ambitious and ruthless Jewish gangster. Stein is fictional, but many of the characters are real, including cameos by Judy Garland, the Andrews Sisters, and Busby Berkeley. Sharp’s (The True Memoirs of Little K, 2010) research shines in her detailed descriptions of the MGM productions Esme’s mother plays in and the Vegas extravaganzas that feature Esme herself. “The Stardust’s…stage was larger than a basketball court, with an Esther Williams–like swimming tank for summer shows and Sonja Henie–like skating rink for winter ones. The pipes secreted in the catwalks created rain or snow on demand.” If you liked Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, this novel offers a similarly immersive mid-20th-century experience, featuring a heroine as interesting, tough, and tragic as Egan’s Anna Kerrigan, with similar Daddy issues and gangland connections.
This glittering noirish tragedy, with its lushly imagined period landscape and subtle feminist trajectory, is both fun to read and sad to think about.