An irresistible retake on Pride and Prejudice alters the familiar perspective by foregrounding a different version of events—the servants’.
Daring to reconfigure what many would regard as literary perfection, Baker (The Undertow, 2012,etc.) comes at Jane Austen’s most celebrated novel from below stairs, offering a working-class view of the Bennet family of Longbourn House. While the familiar drama of Lizzie and Jane, Bingley and Darcy goes on in other, finer rooms, Baker’s focus is the kitchen and the stable and the harsh cycle of labor that keeps the household functioning. Cook Mrs. Hill rules the roost, and maids Sarah and Polly do much of the hard work, their interminable roster of chores diminished a little by the hiring of a manservant, James Smith. Sarah is attracted to James, but he is mysterious and withdrawn, and soon, her eye is caught by another—Bingley’s black footman, Ptolemy. James, though trapped in his secrets, has noticed Sarah too and steps in when she is on the verge of making an impulsive mistake. And so, the romance begins. Baker is at her best when touching on the minutiae of work, of interaction, of rural life. James’ back story, though capably done, offers less magic. But a last episode, moving through grief and silence into understated romantic restoration, showcases a softly piercing insight.
Sequels and prequels rarely add to the original, but Baker’s simple yet inspired reimagining does. It has best-seller stamped all over it.
Barnhardt’s fourth novel is a revelation: witty, savage and bighearted all at once, it is the Southern novel for the 21st century.
The Jarvis-Johnston clan is a Charlotte, N.C., family of distinction; they have all that matters to society: money, pedigree and manners enough to keep secrets buried. But, as each family member is revealed (spanning a decade, every character has their own chapter), the ruin of the family becomes imminent. When Jerilyn Johnston heads off to Chapel Hill, she seems the one child who will live up to her mother Jerene’s exacting standards. But when she pledges Sigma Kappa Nu, filled with rich, surgery-augmented party girls who hope to raise spring-break money by starting their own online porn site, Jerilyn falls into the abyss, which is a place her uncle Gaston Jarvis frequents with pleasure. Though in his youth he was a Young Turk of the literary world, for the last two decades he has churned out a regrettable Civil War series featuring the adventures of Cordelia Florabloom. The books have made him rich and bitter, his only solace a bar stool at the club. The great Southern novel he wanted to write, Lookaway Dixieland, conceived with his comrade in arms Duke Johnston, serves as a treacherous reminder of his wasted life. Jerene and Duke’s other children—Annie, the much-married left-wing rebel; Josh, who spends his evenings trolling for black men on the down low; and Bo, a Presbyterian minister who despises his congregation—are all beyond their parents’ control, contributing to the mother of all Christmas dinner disasters. Perhaps most poignant is patriarch Duke Johnston: the golden boy beloved by everyone, offered the world but who, in the end, locks himself away in his Civil War library, fixated on an insignificant battle, shielded by history.
Barnhardt masterfully reimagines the Southern gothic: There is every kind of sordid deed committed, but there is also an abundance of humanity and grace.
A murder investigation centering on postwar London brings together two very different people in Busby’s last novel.
Busby, who died in 2012 after a long illness, wrote her book while in the final stages of cancer. Reflecting the abject bleakness of daily life following World War II, when necessities were rationed and men newly returned from the front lines found there was no work to be had, Busby’s story simultaneously follows Lillian Frobisher in the last days leading up to her murder in a bombing and the longings of a police investigator for the kind of relationship that eludes him. Divisional DI Jim Cooper is assigned to solve the killing of a woman whose body is discovered by schoolboys, but her death only serves to underscore his own loneliness. Deserted when the war broke out by the woman he loved, Cooper finds his life sad and repetitive and despairs of ever finding love again. Meanwhile, Cooper and the policewoman who has been assigned to drive him around London in connection with the case are piecing together the events leading up to Frobisher’s murder one small bit at a time. When police identify her as the wife of a returned serviceman who cares for her elderly mother in a bombed-out home, they inch closer to finding out who actually killed the woman. The story of two desperately lonely individuals whose lives have become meaningless, Busby’s novel is based on an actual murder that took place after the war. Set against the bleakness of a London that’s short on everything and still in tatters from bombings and splintered relationships, the book captures the hopelessness and desperation of the times. Busby’s husband prefaces his wife’s book with a beautifully written tribute to his late wife and her talent, which makes the reading experience even more poignant.
A moody gem of a novel that gives moving testament to the exemplary talent that is Busby's lasting legacy.
A marriage flames out. Gleefully, thrillingly, Dee (The Privileges, 2010, etc.) tracks its aftermath, focusing primarily on the evolution of the ex-wife.
That’s Helen Armstead, struggling to save a dying marriage. Husband Ben, partner in a New York City law firm, has been so deeply depressed he’s ignored not just her and their upstate home, but their 12-year-old daughter, Sara (Chinese, adopted). The end comes fast. Ben, discovered in a hotel room with his intern, is beaten bloody by her boyfriend, then discovered again in his car, drunk and unconscious. Fired, and facing rape and DWI charges, he goes into rehab. Divorce filed but their assets frozen, Helen, a stay-at-home mom, must hustle to find work. She lucks out when she’s hired by a down-at-the-heels PR company in the city. Her first assignment, persuading the owner of a Chinese restaurant chain to publish an apology to his striking workers, is a huge success. Even the boss’ sudden death doesn’t slow Helen down. She persuades two more male clients, drowning in bad publicity, to go the apology route. Her crisis management skills attract the attention of a huge PR company, which recruits her. This is not some empowerment fairy tale; Dee keeps the action grounded and credible. In an already dramatic story, the most sizzling drama comes after Helen accidentally meets an old childhood classmate at a movie premiere. Hamilton Barth is a Hollywood superstar, a deeply troubled man with a history of benders and blackouts; a greatly magnified version of Ben. When Helen subsequently gets a rescue-me call from Hamilton in a Vermont motel, the already brisk pace becomes breakneck. There’s a young woman missing, bloody sheets and an amnesiac Hamilton willing to believe the worst of himself. It will take all Helen’s crisis management skills to resolve this one.
With his sixth novel, Pulitzer finalist Dee has written a page turner without sacrificing a smidgen of psychological insight. What a triumph.
Dubus anatomizes personal—especially sexual—relationships brilliantly in these loosely concatenated novellas.
At the center of the characters’ world are the small, economically depressed towns in Massachusetts where waiters, waitresses, bartenders and bankers live and move and have their being. To Dubus’ credit, he doesn’t feel he has to solve their personal problems and the intricate twists of their relationships. Instead, he chronicles what’s going on with sympathy but without any sense that he needs to rescue them. In the first narrative, we meet hapless Mark Welch, who’s recently found out his wife, Laura, is having an affair with a banker. Although occasionally picking up and hefting a piece of lead pipe, Mark ultimately finds himself powerless to change the circumstances of his life. In the second story, we follow Marla, a physically unprepossessing bank teller (yes, she works at the same bank as Laura’s lover) who feels her life slipping away from her. She begins a desultory affair with a 37-year-old engineer whose passions tend toward video games and keeping his house pathologically clean. The next story introduces us to Robert Doucette, bartender and poet manqué, who marries Althea, a sweet but reticent upholsterer. In the final months of Althea’s pregnancy, Robert has hot sex with Jackie, a waitress at the restaurant, and Althea finds this out and simultaneously goes into labor. The final narrative focuses on Devon, an 18-year-old waitress at the tavern where Robert works. To get away from an abusive father, she lives with a considerate great uncle (who harbors his own secrets), but she has to deal with the unintended consequences of an untoward sexual act that was disseminated through social media.
An extravagantly good alternate-universe Horatio Alger story for the teeming billions, affirming all that’s right—and wrong—with economic globalization.
“The whites of your eyes are yellow,” writes Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 2007, etc.), “a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus affecting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum.” The “you” in question is the unnamed protagonist, addressed throughout, unusually, in the second person through the fictive frame of a self-help book that is fairly drenched in irony. But, like Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke (2000), there’s more than a little of the picaresque in this bildungsroman. As our anonymous hero comes of age and goes well beyond majority, he confronts the challenges not only of chasing out the hep E virus, but also of finding love, work and satisfaction in life—the stuff of everyday life everywhere. The younger subject’s family lives in an overcrowded, urban slum in some unnamed South Asian nation—perhaps, to judge by a few internal clues, the author’s native Pakistan, though he is careful not to specify—where his father’s small salary as a cook (“he is not a man obsessed with the freshness or quality of his ingredients”) is at least enough to fend off the starvation so many of their neighbors endure. The family, like many of the people our hero will meet, is displaced from the countryside, having followed an early lesson of the vade mecum: “Moving to the city is the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia.” Indeed, he attains material success, but he's always just out of reach of the true love of his life—and if anything else, this exceptionally well-written novel is not about the Hobbesian grasping and clawing of first impression, but about the enduring power of family, love and dreams.
Another great success for Hamid and another illustration of how richly the colonial margins are feeding the core of literature in English.
A high-class meal provides an unlikely window into privilege, violence and madness.
Paul, the narrator of this caustic tale, initially appears to be an accomplished man who’s just slightly eccentric and prone to condescension: As he and his wife prepare for a pricey dinner with his brother and sister-in-law, he rhetorically rolls his eyes at wait staff, pop culture and especially his brother, a rising star in the Dutch political world. The mood is mysteriously tense in the opening chapters, as the foursome talk around each other, and Paul’s contempt expands. The source of the anxiety soon becomes evident: Paul’s teenage son, along with Paul’s brother’s children, was involved in a violent incident, and though the videos circulating on TV and YouTube are grainy, there’s a high risk they’ll be identified. The formality of the meal is undone by the parents’ desperate effort to keep a lid on the potential scandal: Sections are primly titled “Aperitif,” “Appetizer” and so on, but Koch deliberately sends the narrative off-menu as it becomes clear that Paul’s anxiety is more than just a modest personality tic, and the foursome’s high-toned concerns about justice and egalitarianism collapse into unseemly self-interest. The novel can be ineffectually on the nose when it comes to discussions of white guilt and class, the brothers’ wives are thin characters, and scenes meant to underscore Paul’s madness have an unrealistic vibe that show Koch isn’t averse to a gratuitous, melodramatic shock or two. Even so, Koch’s slow revelation of the central crisis is expertly paced, and he’s opened up a serious question of what parents owe their children, and how much of their character is passed on to them.
At its best, a chilling vision of the ugliness of keeping up appearances.
A novel of art and politics but also of bikes and speed—not Harleys and drugs, but fine (and fast) Italian motorbikes.
At 21, Reno (who goes by the name of the city she comes from) has graduated with a degree in art from the University of Nevada-Reno, and she does what any aspiring artist would like to—heads to New York City. She gets her kicks by riding a Moto Valera, a magnificent example of Italian engineering. In fact, for one brief shining moment in 1976, she sets a speed record of 308.506 mph on her bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This impressive achievement occurs the year after she’d headed to New York, where she’d taken up with—amazing coincidence—Sandro Valera, scion of the Italian manufacturer of the motorbikes she favors and, like Reno, an aspiring artist in New York. Other coincidences abound—for example, that Reno had had sex with a young man, and they’d agreed not to exchange names, but shortly afterward she finds out he’s a close friend of Sandro’s, and he goes on to play a major role in her life. Kushner spends a considerable amount of time flashing us back to the Valera who founded the firm in the early 20th century, and she updates the fate of the company when Reno and Sandro visit his family home in Italy. There they experience both a huge demonstration and eventually the kidnapping of Sandro’s father, a victim of the political turbulence of the 1970s.
Kushner writes well and plunges us deeply into the disparate worlds of the New York City art scene, European political radicalism and the exhilarating rush of motorcycles.
A rising star in neonoir, Lange follows up his 2009 novel, This Wicked World, with a sharply calibrated and affecting tale about a young Mexican beauty who will do anything to reclaim the baby daughter she left in Los Angeles.
The woman, Luz, survived a hard upbringing in Tijuana only to fall under the control of an abusive Mexican drug lord, Rolando, aka "El Principe." After going to great lengths to convince him she is devoted to him, she sneaks off with a pile of his money, killing two of his household staff with his gun. She hires Malone, an American who makes a living smuggling Mexicans across the border, to drive her to California. They are quickly pursued by Jerónimo, a one-time LA gang member whom Rolando springs from a Tijuana prison to bring back Luz, and Thacker, a corrupt U.S. Border Patrol agent. Jerónimo, a reformed soul whose wife and daughter are being held by Rolando until he returns with Luz, strikes an uneasy alliance with the slovenly, unreformed Thacker: He'll get Luz, and the border cop will get the money. Malone, who is haunted by memories of seeing his own little girl run over by a car, becomes committed to Luz. The twisting plot thickens when Rolando orders Jerónimo to bring back Luz's child as well. Unlike most such stories, this book is driven not by greed or revenge but by parenthood, and Lange doesn't subscribe to the usual moral checks and balances. In all other ways, however, he embraces classic noir in all its violence, bleakness and dark humor. He makes readers care about his flawed characters and appreciate the odds that were stacked against them by the circumstances of their upbringing.
A film waiting to happen, this book boasts memorable characters, evocative settings and a suspenseful plot.
A sequence of six linked stories explores the lives of those who risk something for their ideals, which is not the same as, and produces quite different results from, risking something for one's beliefs.
Silber (The Size of the World, 2008, etc.) teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She has won a PEN/Hemingway Award and has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize and the National Book Award. The title story begins with telegraphic directness: “A lot of people thought anarchists were fools.” Silber makes much of the difference between what it means to be a fool and being merely foolish. The former is so much worse. In “Fools,” a merry band of political idealists lives a bohemian life in New York in the ’20s. In the background looms the incarceration and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. The characters make love, marry, cheat on their spouses and scatter. The next story, “Hanging Fruit,” follows Anthony—the son of one who left penury for profit, then regressed back into poverty. “Two Opinions” follows Louise, the daughter of an anarchist, in jail as a conscientious objector. The legacy of her father’s radical politics costs her the life she imagines she wants, but she is merely mistaken and learns to provide for herself in novel ways, finding satisfactions she couldn’t have dreamed of, including the possibility that satisfaction is overrated. “Better” is the weakest in this worthwhile collection. Its connection to the others is tenuous. “Going Too Far” dramatizes a clash between the spiritual and the practical. It and the final story, “Buying and Selling,” are more completely realized.
A thought-provoking collection; “Buying and Selling” is particularly strong.