Two families are fused, atomized, and reconfigured by a stolen kiss, a child’s death, and a bestselling novel.
In her seventh work of fiction, Patchett (This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, 2013, etc.) turns from the exotic locales and premises of Bel Canto (2001) and State of Wonder (2011) to a subject closer to home: the evolution of an American family over five decades. The story begins on a very hot day in Southern California at a christening party for Beverly and Fix Keating’s second daughter, Franny. A lawyer named Bert Cousins shows up uninvited, carrying a bottle of gin. With its help, the instant infatuation he conceives for his stunning hostess becomes “the start of his life.” After Bert and Beverly marry and move to Virginia, the six newly minted stepsiblings are dragged unhappily into new relationships and settings. On another hot afternoon, one of the children dies from a bee sting—a tragedy compounded by long-kept secrets and lies. Jumping ahead, we find Franny in her late 20s, having an affair with a Saul Bellow–type novelist 32 years her senior. “Other than the difference in their ages, and the fact that he had an estranged wife, and had written a novel about her family which in its final form made her want to retch even though she had found it nothing less than thrilling when he was working on it, Franny and Leo were great.” Since Patchett comes from a blended family with the same outlines as the one in this book, the problems created by Leo's fictionalized family history, also called Commonwealth, are particularly intriguing. The prose is lean and inviting, but the constant shifts in point of view, the peripatetic chronology, and the ever growing cast of characters will keep you on your toes.
A satisfying meat-and-potatoes domestic novel from one of our finest writers.
A gorgeous multigenerational saga of love and race, loss and belonging, Chung’s (Long for This World, 2010) latest follows the intertwining lives of two very different families in Washington, D.C.
Charles Frederick Douglass Lee, the young African-American patriarch of his biracial family, husband of Alice, father of Veda (9, beautiful) and Benny (6, difficult), is doing for his family what his own father couldn’t, or wouldn’t. As a young soldier stationed in Korea, Charles met Alice, fresh out of the Peace Corps and avoiding medical school at home. Alice got pregnant; Charles proposed, determined to “put his head down, do right, and make a family.” And so they have built a life together, stable if not easy. Then Alice returns to work after years at home, and the family (Alice, really—Charles “didn’t believe in babysitters”) hires Hannah Lee, the stoic 13-year-old daughter of Korean immigrants, to look after the kids. In Hannah, Charles finds unlikely kinship, and the two develop a silent understanding, powerful, unspoken, and deeply intimate. “Hannah had no name for her watchfulness toward Charles, and thus she treasured it all the more,” writes Chung. The watchfulness is mutual. But when tragedy strikes, Charles and Hannah are at once ripped apart and forever bound together, and the Lees—all of them—are forced to renegotiate their relationships with each other and with themselves. Quietly expansive, the novel moves between the stories of the two families, alternating glimpses of the past with the present: Hannah’s parents’ forbidden courtship in Korea and a doomed family trip back to the Hadong countryside 10 years later; Alice’s early adulthood and the night she met Charles. Every last one of Chung’s characters is wholly alive and breathtakingly human, but it’s her portrait of teenage Hannah—always complicated, never romanticized—that makes the novel such a heart-wrenching pleasure.
Elegant and empathetic, a book impossible to put down.
Three generations of smart, articulate women deal with challenging life passages.
Henrietta, 70, lost her beloved husband—a famous chef—11 months ago and cannot recover emotionally or financially. Her straits are such that she has grudgingly allowed the reissue of The Inseparables, an X-rated bestseller she wrote in her 20s. She’s also started selling tchotchkes from around her house, but the most valuable of them, a weathervane, has gone missing. Meanwhile, her daughter, Oona, an orthopedic surgeon, is navigating the waters of a choppy divorce from her pothead ex-lawyer spouse, Spencer, and has embarked on a dubious relationship with their couples therapist. Oona and Spencer’s 15-year-old daughter, Lydia, has been the victim of a terrible classmate at boarding school, Charlie, who made her think he was her boyfriend, gave her her first kiss, and then posted pictures of her breasts on the Internet. “Hartwell took students as young as six, taught them Mandarin, Shakespeare, and computer coding, and spat them back out in to the world as currency traders or diplomats or white-collar criminals.” This Charlie kid is getting started early; he's ruined Lydia’s life in a way not completely different than the overexposure that still torments her ex–sex-writer grandmother. Nadler (The Wise Men, 2013), a male writer in his 30s, truly dazzles with his understanding of women—this is the kind of book that will cause female readers to fall in love with the author. The three parallel plots unfold very tautly for at least two-thirds of the duration, then things slow down with too many flashbacks and digressions in the climactic chapters. The resolutions of all the problems are a little flat, if unarguably realistic. But these things are more something for book groups to talk about than serious flaws.
Two absorbing narrative lines follow an imagined perpetrator and potential victims in the 1984 bombing that targeted Margaret Thatcher and other Conservative Party notables meeting at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England.
Lee (Who Is Mr Satoshi, 2010, etc.) uses few historical characters as his story toggles within a fictional trio: Dan, an accomplice to the bombing; the hotel’s deputy manager, nicknamed Moose; and his feisty daughter, Freya. After initiation into the Provisional Irish Republican Army at 18, Dan is shown briefly working on smaller “ops” but mainly sharing with his widowed mother a fairly normal life in Northern Ireland. His role in the bombing begins when he checks into the hotel and offers cover for an IRA explosives expert. Moose is caught up in preparations for the Conservative Party conference that will have Margaret Thatcher and Cabinet members staying at the Grand. If it goes off well, so to speak, he expects to become the general manager. The divorced father worries about Freya, 18, who is marking time before college with a job on the hotel’s front desk, finding and losing a beau, and fighting with or fretting over her dad. The fragile normalcy of these lives on both sides of the Irish Sea is nicely conveyed, with smaller points of tension adding to the reader’s anticipation of the known climax, such as Dan’s sense of a growing threat to his home and mother or Moose’s loss of managerial control when he suffers a heart attack. The bomb itself is the main slow-burning fuse of suspense, detonated late in the tale. As one character says of movies, “sometimes the before is more interesting than the after.”
Lee’s writing has a marked freshness, his pacing and dialogue are exceptional, and every scene is deftly handled. This is a real craftsman at work.
An English nurse confronts Irish history and entrenched prejudices—some of them hers—in this stinging latest from Donoghue (Frog Music, 2014, etc.).
Lib Wright has survived the Crimean War and a failed marriage by the time she’s summoned to central Ireland to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, whose parents claim she has eaten no food in four months. The girl’s physician, Dr. McBrearty, and a committee of local bigwigs have hired Lib and a nun to provide round-the-clock surveillance. Lib quickly realizes that Dr. McBrearty, at least, is weirdly anxious to prove the girl’s fast is no hoax, even if he deplores loose talk of a miracle. An advocate of the scientific nursing principles preached by Florence Nightingale, Lib has nothing but contempt for such an absurd idea. Yet she is charmed by Anna, as whip-smart as she is pious, and alarmed when the girl’s surprisingly robust health begins to falter shortly after the nurses’ watch begins. Clearly someone has been feeding Anna until now, but it’s also clear she believes she has eaten nothing. Lib’s solution of this riddle says nothing good about provincial Irish society in the mid-19th century, seen through her eyes as sexist, abusive, and riddled with ridiculous superstitions. Irish Times correspondent William Byrne counters with a scathing analysis of the recent potato famine, angrily instructing this blinkered Englishwoman in her nation’s culpability for mass starvation as well as the centuries of repression that have made the Irish a defensive, backward people. Nonetheless, nothing can excuse the wall of denial Lib slams into as she desperately tries to get Anna’s parents and the committee even to acknowledge how sick the child is. The story’s resolution seems like pure wish fulfillment, but vivid, tender scenes between Lib and Anna, coupled with the pleasing romance that springs up between feisty Lib and the appreciative Byrne, will incline most readers to grant Donoghue her tentative happy ending.
Her contemporary thriller Room (2010) made the author an international bestseller, but this gripping tale offers a welcome reminder that her historical fiction is equally fine.
In her first adult novel in 20 years, National Book Award–winning children’s author Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming, 2014, etc.) crafts a haunting coming-of-age story of four best friends in Brooklyn, New York.
“The year my mother started hearing voices from her dead brother Clyde, my father moved my own brother and me from our SweetGrove land in Tennessee to Brooklyn,” says August. It was 1973. August was 8 years old; her younger brother was 4. Mourning the loss of their mother, it was hard for the children to be alone and friendless in a new city. But, gradually, August found friends: “Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves.” With such nuanced moments of metaphor as these, Woodson conveys the sweet beauty that lies within the melancholy of August's childhood memories. Now, 20 years later, August has returned to Brooklyn to help her brother bury their father. In lyrical bursts of imagistic prose, Woodson gives us the story of lives lived, cutting back and forth between past and present. As August's older self reckons with her formative childhood experiences and struggles to heal in the present, haunting secrets and past trauma come to light. Back then, August and her friends, burdened with mothers who were dead or absent, had to navigate the terrifying world of male attention and sexual assault by themselves. “At eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, we knew we were being watched,” August says, achingly articulating the experience of a young girl coming of age and overwhelmed by the casual, commonplace, predatory violence of men. There's the pastor who presses his penis against Gigi’s back when she sings in the choir; the ex-soldier in the laundry room who rapes Gigi when she's 12. There's August’s first boyfriend and her first betrayal. To escape all this, August focuses on school and flees Brooklyn for college out of state and, eventually, work overseas. Here is an exploration of family—both the ones we are born into and the ones we make for ourselves—and all the many ways we try to care for these people we love so much, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.
A stunning achievement from one of the quietly great masters of our time.
A sequel to the great Nobody’s Fool (1993) checks in on the residents of poor old North Bath, New York, 10 years later.
In his breakout third novel, Russo (Elsewhere, 2012, etc.) introduced a beat-up cast of variously broke, overweight, senile, adulterous, dissolute, and philosophical citizens of a ruined resort town, living out their luckless lives between a bar known as the Horse and a diner called Hattie’s Lunch. Cock of the walk was Sully, the gruff but softhearted practical joker/construction worker played by Paul Newman in the movie. Now past 70, Sully is back with a nest egg (his trifecta came in twice; his landlady left him her house), serious health problems, and a dog named Rub. Since his best friend is a mentally challenged dwarf also named Rub, this causes confusion. Wisely, Russo moves Sully off center stage and features one of his nemeses from the first book, a pathetic police officer named Douglas Raymer (Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film). Raymer is now the chief of police, and the novel follows him and other characters through an action-packed two-day period that includes a funeral, a building collapse, an escaped cobra, a grave robbery, multiple lightning strikes, assaults, and auto thefts, strung together with the page-turning revelations about the characters’ private lives Russo does so well. Now it’s the 1990s, so the characters’ weaknesses include hoarding, OCD, depression, sex addiction/impotence, and a mild case of multiple personality disorder. Chief Raymer is tormented by his beautiful wife’s horrible death, by a sophisticated colleague from the yuppie town next door, and by the malaprop motto he accidentally had printed on his campaign cards: “We’re Not Happy Until You’re Not Happy.” Who is this Douglas Raymer, his English teacher used to write on his papers, and it will take a whole lot of hell breaking loose for him to find the answer. For maximum pleasure, read Nobody’s Fool first.
Russo hits his trademark trifecta: satisfying, hilarious, and painlessly profound.
Lore arrives at the hospital alone, carrying a single duffel bag and an extremely detailed birth plan. Franckline, the maternity nurse charged with her care, soon learns this this taciturn, prickly woman is no more enthusiastic about accepting help than she is about fetal monitoring or an IV. But Franckline knows when to recede and when to insist, and, as pain breaks down Lore’s self-reliance, these two strangers form a bond that is singular in its intimacy and intensity. Erens’ second book, The Virgins (2013), was a study in teenage sex and friendship and a critical favorite. Her debut novel, The Understory—first published in 2007 and rereleased in 2014—was a close look at the devastating power of loneliness. Erens excels at reading the entrails of dreadful experiences and messy relationships. Her exquisite prose is what keeps readers from turning away. In between contractions, Lore remembers her dead mother and her absent father. She alternately loathes and longs for her baby’s father as she obsessively revisits scenes from their time together. When she’s not tending Lore, Franckline’s thoughts turn to her own pregnancy—so new that she hasn’t even told her husband about it. These glimpses inside the minds and hearts of two women are richly rendered, but this novel’s greatest achievement is its excruciatingly vivid depiction of what it is to grow and carry and deliver a child. Erens makes it clear that—at best—giving birth is an awful ordeal. And, by combining portraits of a woman at the beginning of her pregnancy and a woman on the brink of motherhood, Erens shows that there is not one moment between these two experiences without peril.
Prolific British author Dunmore, who has published poetry, children’s literature, and a range of adult fiction (The Lie, 2014, etc.), shifts gears yet again with this Cold War–era spy drama.
Drama as opposed to mystery because there is no question about who’s passing secrets. Readers know early on that Giles Holloway and his spymaster, Julian Clowde, are moles in the British Admiralty, where Julian holds a high position. This is 1960, the defection of actual spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean is public knowledge, and Giles senses he’s being watched. One night after photographing a file for Julian in his secret attic office, Giles falls down his stairs in a fluke accident that leaves him seriously injured. Since Julian is unavailable in Venice, Giles calls co-worker Simon Callington from his hospital bed to ask a favor: get the file and return it to Julian’s desk. But Simon is clearly no spy, merely a middling civil servant without ambition. After an unhappy childhood being bullied by his brothers, all Simon cares about is the haven of normalcy he has created with his children and wife, Lily, a Jew who escaped Germany in 1937 and remains fearfully conscious of her outsider status in England. But out of lingering affection and guilt—before meeting Lily, while still a student at Cambridge, he broke off an intense love affair with Giles—Simon agrees to retrieve the file against his better judgment. When he sees the designation “Top Secret,” Simon realizes that Giles lacked authorization to read the file, let alone bring it home, and was probably spying. Afraid that returning it will place Simon himself under suspicion, he brings the file home, where Lily finds it and does whatever she considers necessary to save her family.
This subtle, off-kilter foray into John le Carré territory—a chilling, thoughtful, deeply romantic drama about the collateral damage suffered by those on the periphery of world events—displays Dunmore's gifts as one of today’s most elegant and versatile storytellers.
A mother tries to reconcile the voices in her head and an extortionist estranged husband in a peculiar, stirring thriller.
Anna, the narrator of Millet’s 10th novel (Mermaids in Paradise, 2014, etc.), began hearing an inexplicable “stream of chatter” after her daughter, Lena, was born. The voices diminished after a year, and a split from her husband, Ned, prompted her to move from her native Alaska to a coastal Maine motel with a decidedly eerie cast; in time she’ll learn it’s an unwitting magnet for others with similar conditions. But Anna has more pressing problems: Ned is running for the Alaska state Senate and wants Anna and Lena to head back to Anchorage to serve as photo-op props. When Anna demurs, Ned turns threatening; when she tries to hasten a divorce, Lena is kidnapped. Millet has a knack for planting plainspoken, world-weary narrators in otherworldly circumstances, and Anna is one of her sharpest, most intriguingly philosophical creations. Though she considers medical and scientific reasons for the chatter (“filtered particles from the immense cloud of content carried by those millions of waves that pass through us all the time”), her head is also aswim with stories of mysterious symbiotic tree colonies and a “deeper language, an urge that underlies our patterns of survival.” Rather than feeling like two novels on separate tracks—New Age ramble and evil-ex drama—those threads braid effectively, especially when it comes to politics. If Ned’s campaign can stage-manage Anna’s life so effectively, how much of a force is it in everything else? Millet is content to leave the woollier questions unanswered, but the thriller writer in her brings the book to a satisfying climax.
A top-notch tale of domestic paranoia that owes a debt to spooky psychological page-turners like Rosemary’s Baby yet is driven by Millet’s particular offbeat thinking.
In post–Civil War Texas, a 10-year-old girl makes an odyssey back to her aunt and uncle’s home after living with the Kiowa warriors who had killed her parents four years earlier.
Johanna Leonberger remembers almost nothing of her first 6 years, when she lived with her parents. Instead, her memory extends only as far as her Kiowa family—she speaks no English and by white standards is uncivilized. Tired of being harassed by the cavalry, the Kiowa sell her back to an Indian agent for "fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware." Enter Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 70-year-old veteran of two wars and, in 1870, when the novel takes place, a professional reader—he travels through Texas giving public readings from newspapers to an audience hungry for events of the world. At first reluctant to take her the 400 miles to the town near San Antonio where her aunt and uncle live, he soon realizes his itinerant life makes him the most plausible person for the job—and he also knows it’s the right thing to do. He buys a wagon, and they start their journey, much to the reluctance and outrage of the undomesticated Johanna; but a relationship soon begins to develop between the two. Jiles makes the narrative compelling by unsentimentally constructing a bond based at least in part on a mutual need for survival, but slowly and delicately, Johanna and Kidd begin to respect as well as need one another. What cements their alliance is facing many obstacles along the way, including an unmerciful landscape; a lack of weapons; and a vicious cowboy and his companions, who want to kill Kidd and use the girl for their own foul purposes. As one might expect, Kidd and Johanna eventually develop a deep and affectionate relationship; when they arrive at the Leonbergers, the captain must make a difficult choice about whether to leave the girl there or hold onto her himself.
Lyrical and affecting, the novel succeeds in skirting clichés through its empathy and through the depth of its major characters.
In this comic dissection of male bonding, a group of men gathers for their yearly celebration and re-enactment of a notorious play in professional football.
In their 17th annual gathering, 22 men arrive at a 2 ½–star hotel on U.S. Interstate 95 for a weekend of rituals tied to the five seconds in 1985 when Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants sacked Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and fractured the tibia and fibula of his right leg, ending his career. Bachelder (Abbott Awaits, 2011, etc.) looks at the strange, inane, and obvious things American males deem holy—as well as the many small pains they tend to share without “sharing.” Among the weekend’s big moments are the lottery assigning each man’s role as a real-life athlete from the 1985 game, the viewing of video of the sack, and the re-enactment itself. Bachelder seems able to riff wryly on almost anything. One conversation concerns those whose wives have asked them to sit while urinating. Another details a man’s attraction to the women pictured in illustrated children’s books. Yet another drifts “inevitably toward vasectomy and time share.” Eight delightful pages begin: “It would be difficult to overstate the men’s enthusiasm for continental breakfast.” As a group, the middle-aged men produce “waves of masculine sound, the toneless song of regret and exclamation." They often talk in a “complex alloy of sincerity and derision.” One on one, they may speak quietly of their children and marriages and wonder when “daily life [would] cease to consist of a series of small threats.”
Bachelder’s take on manhood is sharply observed and sympathetic and funny enough to win over even those readers who abhor football and its fans.