It's not like Fleishman's estranged wife, a high-powered talent agent, was ever a very involved mother. But now she's dropped off the kids—while he was asleep—and disappeared.
New York Times Magazine staff writer Brodesser-Akner's debut novel tracks Manhattan hepatologist Toby Fleishman through a painful divorce whose sting is mitigated somewhat by the wonders of his dating app. "Toby changed his search parameters to thirty-eight to forty-one, then forty to fifty, what the hell, and it was there that he found his gold mine: endlessly horny, sexually curious women who knew their value, who were feeling out something new, and whose faces didn't force him to have existential questions about youth and responsibility." About 30 pages in, we learn that the narrator is an old friend named Elizabeth “Libby” Slater, whom he met when both were college students on a year abroad in Israel. After the separation, his therapist advised Toby to reconnect with old friends; not having heard from him in years, Libby is at first nonplussed when he calls. A magazine journalist with a stalled career, she lives out in New Jersey, where she's no happier with motherhood than Toby's ex—she describes another male friend's future marriage as "He [would] find someone young and take her life away by finally having children." Toby Fleishman is a man plagued by his height (or at least he is in Libby's account; this narrative strategy raises questions), and he has never recovered from being chubby as a child; he's on a permanent no-carb, no-fat, no-sugar diet which qualifies as an eating disorder. He's a devoted father, but he's also a doctor who's angling for promotion and a man who's trying to take advantage of the unbridled lust of middle-aged women, so his wife's mysterious disappearance is infuriating. And a little scary. Toby is a wonderful character; Libby's narrative voice is funny, smart, and a little bitter as she tells his story, and some of hers as well. You get the feeling she wants to write a novel like (the fictional) Decoupling, an outrageous, bestselling, canonical account of divorce written by one of the stars at her old magazine. Perhaps she has.
Firing on all circuits, from psychological insight to cultural acuity to narrative strategy to very smart humor. Quite a debut!
Gun violence, grief, and the struggle to construct a coherent identity in the funnel cloud of the American absurd.
Rose is a freshman at Ozarka University—a contradictory “land of white mansions” and “lurid binge drinking,” Bible study and date rape—where she is trying to pivot away from her painful childhood (first an EF5 tornado, then a neglectful mother, then a foster home) by remaking herself as a sorority sister, “carefree, upper class, and virtuous by means of…inaccessibility.” Then, during finals week, a student named Eli—a child of loss himself who feels, among other things, “overlooked, disenfranchised, promised one thing and given another”—smuggles a rifle into the crowded library and opens fire. When he’s done, 12 people are dead, and Rose’s anodyne visions, her talent for imitating the absurd, prove a flimsy antidote for the pain. Similarly remade by the shooting is Eddie Bishop, an adjunct writing instructor whose wife, Casey, is both the rebar around which his adult identity was poured (before her, he was the browbeaten replica of his brutally religious father) and one of Eli’s victims. While the media grabs for explanatory scripts (Eli comes from a nonnuclear family! He’s a drug user!) in hopes of conveniently distancing the killer from the rest of us, Englehardt’s characters—Rose, Eddie, and Eli—struggle in a more intimate sphere, a sphere where slogans don’t heal, where confusion is identity, where questions about who you were and are and want to be run like threads through the dark eyelet of Eli’s murderous act. Following each character in alternating second-person chapters—a clever and daring structure in which Eli's creative writing instructor operates as the guiding first-person consciousness at the novel's core—Englehardt’s brilliant and insanely brave debut is a culturally diagnostic achievement in the same way that Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Libra are culturally diagnostic achievements; his sentences are brutal and unflinching and yet mystically humane in the spirit of Denis Johnson’s Angels; and his America is at once beautiful and love-swirled and a kaleidoscopic wreck—a land whose cultural geology mirrors its physical one, routinely generating the “mindless malignancy” of town-wrecking tornadoes and desperate young men with guns.
Hugely important, hauntingly brutal—Englehardt has just announced himself as one of America’s most talented emerging writers.
Eleven achingly realistic stories set in Denver and southern Colorado bear witness to the lives of Latina women of Indigenous descent trying to survive generations of poverty, racism, addiction, and violence.
"Ever feel like the land is swallowing you whole, Sierra?" the narrator's mother, Josie, asks her in "Sugar Babies," the first story of Fajardo-Anstine's debut collection. "That all this beauty is wrapped around you so tight it's like being in a rattlesnake's mouth?" Here, it's becoming a mother at 16 that threatens to swallow Josie, prompting her to abandon 10-year-old Sierra. In "Sabrina & Corina," which follows two cousins, women's lack of opportunities and their dependence on men undo Sabrina, a blue-eyed, dark-haired beauty. While Corina, the plainer of the two, goes to beauty school, Sabrina spirals into substance abuse and sleeps around. She's murdered at the story's start, and Corina has the horrible task of going to the mortuary to do her cousin's makeup, literally covering up the violence she suffered. In "Julian Plaza," gaping holes in our social safety net ensnare the characters. When Nayeli gets breast cancer, her family has no good choices: Her husband's health insurance won't cover effective treatments, and he can't care for her for fear of being canned. Fajardo-Anstine writes with a keen understanding of the power of love even when it's shot through with imperfections. Nayeli's young daughters try to carry their mother home from the neighbor's where she has been sent to die. And Sierra from the title story still fantasizes about her mother returning at some point, "joyously waving to me, her last stop."
Fajardo-Anstine takes aim at our country's social injustices and ills without succumbing to pessimism. The result is a nearly perfect collection of stories that is emotionally wrenching but never without glimmers of resistance and hope.
A series of shocking events, some instigated by the hapless protagonist, shakes up a Colorado family struggling to get by during the economic downturn of the late 1980s.
Things start going south for construction worker Shelley Cooper after a sudden mountain fire consumes the house on which he and his best friend, Mike, were toiling. When his boss rightly suspects he had something to do with an air processor that went missing after the blaze, Shelley loses his job. In desperate financial straits, he agrees to drive a shipment of marijuana to Houston for his brother, Clay, an ex-con who grows his own. "Don't think for a second I was dumb enough to figure it would turn out right," says Shelley, who has the $50,000 payday stolen by a young prostitute he let into his motel room. In fact, nothing ever goes right for him, including his impromptu marriage to his sister's friend Syrena. We are in an alternate Sam Shepard universe in which the battling brothers are too worn down by failure to fight. Moving back and forth in time with extreme subtlety, Gritton erects a penetrating family history of love, loss, loyalty, and betrayal. It takes a great writer to make a character as reprehensible as Shelley not only sympathetic, but almost likable. In fact, Shelley is not so dumb. He wryly reflects on billboards that read “HE IS RISEN” in the face of disaster and tells us how holding $50,000 in cash "feels like a blind rage, like a wolf howling at the moon." How did Shelley became the man he is? In this brilliant debut novel, there are many bread crumbs leading us back to possible answers.
An affecting, richly drawn, darkly humorous novel about grifting siblings, one worse than the other.
A Byzantine web of lies surrounds a fatal fire at an unusual treatment facility in this taut legal drama.
Kim, a former trial lawyer who turns 50 the same week her debut novel is published, does not make it easy on the reviewer charged with describing her book. This is a complicated and unusual story—though when you are reading it, it will all seem smooth as silk. The Yoos, an immigrant family from Korea, own a hyperbaric oxygen therapy tank in a town called Miracle Creek, Virginia. (In a characteristically wry aside, we learn that "Miracle Creek didn't look like a place where miracles took place, unless you counted the miracle of people living there for years without going insane from boredom.") HBOT treatment, which involves sitting in a chamber breathing pure, pressurized oxygen, is believed to be effective in remediating autism and male infertility, and those conditions are what define the group of people who are in the "submarine" when a fire, clearly set by an arsonist, causes it to explode. Two people are killed; others survive paralyzed or with amputations. The novel opens as the murder trial of the mother of a boy who died in the fire begins. As we come to understand the pressures she has been under as the single mother of a special needs child, it does not seem out of the question that she is responsible. But with all the other characters lying so desperately about what they were doing that evening, it can't be as simple as that. With so many complications and loose ends, one of the miracles of the novel is that the author ties it all together and arrives at a deeply satisfying—though not easy or sentimental—ending.
Intricate plotting and courtroom theatrics, combined with moving insight into parenting special needs children and the psychology of immigrants, make this book both a learning experience and a page-turner. Should be huge.
The much-loved royal romance genre gets a fun and refreshing update in McQuiston’s debut.
Alex Claremont-Diaz, son of the American President Ellen Claremont, knows one thing for sure: He hates Henry, the British prince to whom he is always compared. He lives for their verbal sparring matches, but when one of their fights at a royal wedding goes a bit too far, they end up falling into a wedding cake and making tabloid headlines. An international scandal could ruin Alex’s mother’s chances for re-election, so it’s time for damage control. The plan? Alex and Henry must pretend to be best friends, giving the tabloids pictures of their bromance and neutralizing the threat to Ellen's presidency. But after a few photo ops with Henry, Alex starts to realize that the passionate anger he feels toward him might be a cover for regular old passion. There are, naturally, a million roadblocks between their first kiss and their happily-ever-after—how can American political royalty and actual British royalty ever be together? How can they navigate being open about their sexualities (Alex is bisexual; Henry is gay) in their very public and very scrutinized roles? Alex and Henry must decide if they’ll risk their futures, their families, and their careers to take a chance on happiness. Although the story’s premise might be a fantasy—it takes place in a world in which a divorced-mom Texan Democrat won the 2016 election—the emotions are all real. The love affair between Alex and Henry is intense and romantic, made all the more so by the inclusion of their poetic emails that manage to be both funny and steamy. McQuiston’s strength is in dialogue; her characters speak in hilarious rapid-fire bursts with plenty of “likes,” “ums,” creative punctuation, and pop-culture references, sounding like smarter, funnier versions of real people. Although Alex and Henry’s relationship is the heart of the story, their friends and family members are all rich, well-drawn characters, and their respective worlds feel both realistic and larger-than-life.
A year in the lives of women and girls on an isolated peninsula in northeastern Russia opens with a chilling crime.
In the first chapter of Phillips' immersive, impressive, and strikingly original debut, we meet sisters Alyona and Sophia, ages 11 and 8, amusing themselves one August afternoon on the rocky shoreline of a public beach on the waterfront of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a city on Russia's remote Kamchatka peninsula. They are offered a ride home by a seemingly kind stranger. After he drives right past the intersection that leads to the apartment they share with their mother, they disappear from their previous lives and, to a large extent, from the narrative. The rest of the book is a series of linked stories about a number of different women on the peninsula, all with the shadow of the missing girls hanging over them as a year goes by since their disappearance. Another young girl with a single mom loses her best friend to new restrictions imposed by the other girl's anxious mother. The daughter of a reindeer herder from the north, at college in the city, finds her controlling boyfriend clamping down harder than ever. In a provincial town, members of a family whose teenage daughter disappeared four years earlier are troubled by the similarities and differences between their case and this one. The book opens with both a character list and a map—you'll be looking at both often as you find your footing and submerge ever more deeply in this world, which is both so different from and so much like our own. As the connections between the stories pile up and tighten, you start to worry—will we ever get closure about the girls? Yes, we will. And you'll want to start over and read it again, once you know.
An unusual, cleverly constructed thriller that is also a deep dive into the culture of a place many Americans have probably never heard of, illuminating issues of race, culture, sexual attraction, and the transition from the U.S.S.R. to post-Soviet Russia.
The past, present, and future of an African nation is filtered with humane wit, vibrant rhetoric, and relentless ingenuity through the interweaving sagas of three very different families.
The year is 1904, and an itinerant would-be photographer named Percy Clark has wandered from his native England to a colonial outpost along the Zambezi River in what was then known as the Northwestern Rhodesia territory. One momentous day, Clark, addled by fever, is stumbling around the lobby of the Victoria Falls Hotel and somehow manages to inadvertently pull a hank of hair from the pate of the hotel’s Italian manager, whose 5-year-old daughter angrily responds by striking an "innocent native" passer-by so hard that “he became an imbecile.” From the moment that inexplicable calamity occurs, the descendants of these individuals find their respective fates entwined through what’s left of the 20th century and beyond as the land around them morphs into the nation of Zambia. Sometime in the 1960s, for instance, Percy’s wealthy granddaughter, Agnes, deprived by blindness of a promising tennis career, falls in love with a brilliant black exchange student whom she accompanies back to the soon-to-be-independent Zambia he calls home. During those same years, Matha, the precocious granddaughter of the poor assault victim, is among several math-and-science prodigies recruited by the country’s Minister of Space Research to train for a mission to the moon by decade’s end. Strangest of all these progenies is Sibilla, the granddaughter of the hotel manager, who is born with streams and streams of hair that never stops growing—and apparently makes things grow out of the ground, too. The children and the children’s children of these women find themselves inexorably, absurdly, and at times tragically drawn together through the history of both Zambia and the patch of land where their ancestors first collided. Blending intimate and at times implausible events with real-life history, this first novel by Serpell—a Zambian writer who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and who's won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story "The Sack"—enchants its readers with prose as luxuriant and flowing as Sibilla’s hair.
Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel’s generous spirit, sensory richness, and visionary heft make it almost unique among magical realist epics.
In his debut novel, a writer born in Thailand and now living in New York creates a portrait of Bangkok that sweeps across a century and a teeming cast of characters yet shines with exquisite detail.
In its early chapters, the book reads like a collection of short stories linked only by their relationship to Bangkok: A nameless woman walks through its bustling streets in the present; an American doctor more than 100 years ago struggles to decipher its overwhelmingly foreign culture; a Thai photographer living in Los Angeles in the 1970s visits his ailing father in London; a woman running a Thai restaurant in Japan finds herself threatened by Thailand’s politics. But as those seemingly unconnected stories accumulate, so do the threads that join them. Many are stories of loss and of survival. In one, a young Thai man named Siripohng, who has come to the city to attend university, meets a woman named Nee during the massive student demonstrations in 1973. Sudbanthad draws a subtle but achingly lovely account of their courtship, born of the hopeful spirit of the protests—then pivots to a shocking conclusion. In another, an American jazz musician called Crazy Legs Clyde is summoned to a woman’s estate to play piano because a medium, she tells him, “counts twenty or so spirits in the pillar. They visit me in my dreams, and I’m tired of it. A woman my age needs her sound sleep.” But the assignment to exorcise them raises a ghost from Clyde’s past that won’t be stilled. Ghosts haunt this novel, even the ghosts of buildings, like the ancient tile-roofed house preserved within the lobby of a gleaming new skyscraper where some of the book’s characters will live (and at least one will die). As one character muses near the end of the novel, “The forgotten return again and again, as new names and faces, and again this city makes new ghosts.” Yet in Sudbanthad’s skillful hands and lyrical prose, every one of them seems vividly alive.
This breathtakingly lovely novel is an accomplished debut, beautifully crafted and rich with history rendered in the most human terms.
First novel by a Chilean literary scholar who serves up a centrifugal story of death, history, and mathematics.
Felipe Arrabal, a young man living in Santiago, and his friend Iquela have an unusual ability: They can see the dead, legions of whom are to be found in what he describes as “the strangest of places: lying at bus stops, on curbs, in parks, hanging from bridges and traffic lights, floating down the Mapocho.” The dead are everywhere, and Felipe uses “apocalyptic maths” to try to account for them all, millions on millions, their number added to dramatically by the murderous military government of Pinochet and company. Iquela’s heart goes aflutter when she meets Paloma, an ever so cool young woman who has come to Santiago from Berlin; she smokes, has blonde hair, looks tough, and knows the ways of the world. Paloma is so mysterious that a cop wonders whether to bust her for smoking underage “or let her do as she pleased.” Clearly Paloma does what she pleases most of the time, raised, like Iquela, in a home that has deep, hidden roots in the anti-Pinochet resistance movement. “We were so young,” laments Iquela’s mother, looking back on the day she met Paloma’s mom, who, alas, has died—and now her body has gone missing somewhere on the other side of the Andes. She might be anywhere, Iquela observes: in an airplane hangar, in a morgue, back home in Berlin, or “locked inside the photograph hanging on the wall of my mother’s dining room.” Clueless, the three go on a winding journey in search of the wayward body, adding “an improvised inventory of corpses” to Felipe’s endless calculations. The story is told matter-of-factly, with a few hints of magical realism layered in, especially as it draws to a close: They might be angels or Valkyries, perhaps ghosts themselves, but whatever they are, they’re memorable companions on a strange trip.
Thanatofiction at its best and a debut that leaves the reader wanting more.
A young man writes a letter to his illiterate mother in an attempt to make sense of his traumatic beginnings.
When Little Dog is a child growing up in Hartford, he is asked to make a family tree. Where other children draw full green branches full of relatives, Little Dog’s branches are bare, with just five names. Born in Vietnam, Little Dog now lives with his abusive—and abused—mother and his schizophrenic grandmother. The Vietnam War casts a long shadow on his life: His mother is the child of an anonymous American soldier—his grandmother survived as a sex worker during the conflict. Without siblings, without a father, Little Dog’s loneliness is exacerbated by his otherness: He is small, poor, Asian, and queer. Much of the novel recounts his first love affair as a teen, with a “redneck” from the white part of town, as he confesses to his mother how this doomed relationship is akin to his violent childhood. In telling the stories of those who exist in the margins, Little Dog says, “I never wanted to build a ‘body of work,’ but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work.” Vuong has written one of the most lauded poetry debuts in recent memory (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 2016), and his first foray into fiction is poetic in the deepest sense—not merely on the level of language, but in its structure and its intelligence, moving associationally from memory to memory, quoting Barthes, then rapper 50 Cent. The result is an uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem. More important than labels, though, is the novel’s earnest and open-hearted belief in the necessity of stories and language for our survival.
A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.
Deeply weird and unsettlingly hilarious, Wilk’s dystopian debut pushes the grim absurdities of the present just a little bit further, into a near future that’s too plausible for comfort.
Anja and her boyfriend, Louis, live together, inconveniently but rent-free, on the side of an (artificial) mountain in an experimental zero-waste eco-colony—a welcome escape from Berlin’s skyrocketing rents. And yes, their house doesn’t really work, exactly—though it monitors them constantly, it is in a perpetual state of decay—and yes, it is a project of Finster, the all-knowing corporation where Anja works as a lab scientist. Or she did, until her division is suddenly shut down and she’s promoted to “Laboratory Knowledge Management Consultant,” where she’ll “do nothing for more money.” (“That’s how companies run,” her mentor/ex-lover advises, brightly.) But when Louis, an American “artist-consultant” with a prestigious NGO gig, where it is his job to produce exactly nothing with explicit applications—“his creativity,” Wilk explains, “was both the means and the end”—returns from his mother’s funeral, he’s changed somehow, in ways that Anja cannot pinpoint. Instead of grieving, as she imagines grief to be, he immerses himself in a new and secret creative project: a drug called Oval that gets people high on generosity. “Generosity is already in the brain, just waiting to be unlocked,” Louis tells her. “It takes the tiniest change to make giving feel better than taking.” It could be the solution to inequality. After all, he says, “Capitalism—it’s in the brain.” With Louis consumed by his project, and the eco-colony all but condemned, Anja—who has developed a mysteriously vicious rash— is left to navigate an increasingly sinister reality. If the novel sounds dangerously on-the-nose, it isn’t thanks to Wilk’s off-kilter humor. But the book’s true surprise is its startling emotional kick: If the circumstances are heightened to extremes, the relationships—with their delicate dynamics—are all too real.
Witty and alarming, a satire with (unexpected) heart.
This tender, exuberant, and impressively crafted debut novel spans decades of family upheaval and painful secrets in telling the story of a freethinking black woman in a tightly knit Carolina community.
Someone as widely read and as fiercely committed to moonshine and serial relationships as Azalea “Knot” Centre would fit snugly within the sophisticated confines of a major metropolis, even in the early 1940s when this saga begins. But Knot lives and teaches school in the rural hamlet of West Mills, North Carolina, and is viewed by the locals as (at best) something of a crank, a solitary eccentric gruffly determined to live life her way. Knot is in her 20s when, the same month Pearl Harbor is attacked, she discovers she's pregnant by a man who’s left town for the military. As determined as she is to go through this ordeal on her own, especially given her estrangement from her family, Knot is nonetheless besieged by the kindness of her neighbors two doors down, the aptly named Otis Lee Loving and his wife, Penelope (or “Pep,” as he calls her), who agree to find a local couple to adopt the child. That’s the kind of man Otis Lee is, somebody who arranges and fixes things for others, especially those he's closest to. And in Knot, Otis Lee finds a person who needs his help whether she admits it or not. They forge a lifelong platonic bond that can’t be shaken even when Otis Lee has to do the same thing all over again when Knot has another baby by yet another man she’s not marrying. Through Winslow’s evocative writing and expansive storytelling, the layers of Otis Lee’s past life, as troubled and heartbreaking as Knot’s, peel away to reveal how hard it has been for him to remain steadfast and strong to those within and outside his immediate family. And in the brave, hard-bitten, but deeply vulnerable Knot, Winslow has created a character as memorable and colorful as any created by Knot's favorite writer, Charles Dickens. Through more than 40 years of ups and downs, Knot and Otis Lee’s story makes you feel the enduring grace and potential redemption to be found in even the unlikeliest of extended families.
Winslow's heroine isn't easy to like. But over time, she reaches into your heart and touches it deeply. So does this book.