Deeply perceptive and dryly hilarious, Attenberg’s (Saint Mazie, 2015, etc.) latest novel follows Andrea Bern: on the cusp of 40, single, child-free by choice, and reasonably content, she’s living a life that still, even now, bucks societal conventions. But without the benchmarks of “grown up” success—an engagement, a husband, a baby—Andrea is left to navigate her own shifting understanding of adulthood.
“Why is being single the only thing people think of when they think of me? I’m other things, too,” Andrea says, much to the delight of her therapist, who wants to know, then, what exactly those other things are. She is a woman, Andrea says. A designer who works in advertising; a New Yorker; technically, a Jew. A friend, she tells her therapist. A daughter, a sister, an aunt. Here are the things that Andrea does not say: she’s alone. A drinker. A former artist. A shrieker in bed. At 39, Andrea is neither an aspirational figure nor a cautionary tale of urban solitude. She is, instead, a human being, a person who, a few years ago, got a pair of raises at work and paid off her debt from her abandoned graduate program and then bought some real furniture, as well as proper wine glasses. And still she does not fully compute to the people around her, people whose “lives are constructed like buildings, each precious but totally unsurprising block stacked before your eyes.” Everyone is married or marrying, parenting or pregnant, and it’s not so much that she’s lusting after these things, specifically—neither marriage nor babies is her “bag,” anyway—so much as it’s that her lack of them puts her at odds with the adult world and its definitions of progress. Structured as a series of addictive vignettes—they fly by if you let them, though they deserve to be savored—the novel is a study not only of Andrea, but of her entire ecosystem: her gorgeous, earthy best friend whose perfect marriage maybe isn’t; her much younger co-worker; her friend, the broke artist, who is also her ex-boyfriend and sometimes her current one. And above all, her brother and his wife, whose marriage, once a living affirmation of the possibility of love, is now crumbling under the pressure of their terminally ill child.
Wry, sharp, and profoundly kind; a necessary pleasure.
Auster’s first novel in seven years is nothing if not ambitious: a four-part invention, more than 800 pages, that follows the life (or lives) of Archie Ferguson, despite his name a child of Jewish Newark, born in the 1940s. If such a territory seems well-traveled (Philip Roth, anyone?), Auster, as he often does, has something more complex in mind. Indeed, his subject in these pages is identity: not how it gets fixed but rather all the ways it can unfurl. To that end, he develops the book as four distinct narratives, each imagining a different life for Archie depending on the circumstances faced by himself and his family. It’s an ingenious move, and when it works, which is often, it gives a sense of breadth and scope, of unpredictability, to the novel as a whole. This is underscored by Auster’s decision to keep the rest of the book naturalistic, taking place in an identifiable world. Thus, once young Ferguson discovers baseball, he watches Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Giants versus Indians, in which Willie Mays made his legendary catch. Later, he will end up in Europe as an aesthete, or as a student transferring to Brooklyn College, or in Rochester, New York, as a journalist reporting on the aftermath of the 1960s and the bombing of Cambodia. The history helps to keep us rooted, both because it’s recognizable and also because it remains consistent across the novel’s narratives, its variations on this single life. So, too, Auster’s sense of possibility, his understanding that what all his Fergusons have in common, with us and with one another, is a kind of quiet intensity, a striving to discover who they are. “It could never end,” he writes about one incarnation of the character. “The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from the book, and it would always be summer as long as they didn’t breathe too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were nineteen and were finally, finally almost, finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying good-bye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.”
With this novel, Auster reminds us that not just life, but also narrative is always conditional, that it only appears inevitable after the fact.
Brownrigg prunes back the overextended abstractions that weighed down The Metaphysical Touch (1999) to produce an affectingly slender love story.
Coltish Flannery Jansen arrives from the west for her freshman year at carefully unnamed Yale University knowing nothing: not what autumn looks like, or what to order for breakfast, or how to wear her hair. And the coolly appraising eye of Anne Arden, the teaching assistant for the section of Introduction to Criticism she signs up for, makes her even more awkward and self-conscious. Since Brownrigg scorns the romantic-comedy artifices that might have kept the two women apart, however—the only obstacle here is Flannery's emotional turmoil—by Thanksgiving break they've consummated their affair over a New York weekend. The narrative voice, which, apart for a couple of imprudent glances inside Anne, remains locked into Flannery's perspective, is so ardent that the love affair seems not so much described as overheard, an effect that's accentuated by a prologue offering these lyrical, warmly episodic pages to a hopelessly distant ex-lover. Brownrigg (Ten Women Who Shook the World, 2000) floats her romantic couple along in such a hothouse atmosphere—apart from a math major with a crush on Flannery and a Korean student with a crush on Anne, there's scarcely another character on display, and the lovers' chance encounter with a pair of anonymous Florida honeymooners leads to disaster—that their world of poetry and smoking and clinging kisses seems complete in itself. Of course, no world that's been so easily won is going to remain complete for very long, and the affair ends in a flurry of missteps that seem just as facile as its vaulting ascent to the heights of bliss.
A valentine that perfectly captures love's power to isolate the lovers from the rest of the world—and, in the end, from each other.
A dark genre-bending thriller that starts with a drowning but widens to encompass murder, cancer, drug addiction, and satanic ritual abuse.
Dustin is a Cleveland psychiatrist who’s having a rough, creepy year. His wife has died of cancer, and one of his patients is recruiting him to help investigate the drownings of young men that seem to match a pattern. And that’s just the stuff he’s aware of. Dustin doesn’t know that his youngest son, 18-year-old Aaron, is developing a heroin habit in the wake of his mom’s death. Nor does he know that Aaron has been talking with Dustin’s adopted brother, Rusty, who was convicted for killing Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle nearly 30 years earlier. Rusty was sent to prison based on circumstantial evidence and Dustin’s supposedly repressed memories of witnessing a satanic cult ritual that provoked the massacre. But that devil-made-me-do-it stuff has been debunked, DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty, and Dustin, we learn, was and remains easily persuaded that untrue things are true. Chaon (Stay Awake, 2012, etc.) has a good time with all this bad news, skillfully exploring our unwitting capacity for self-delusion and self-destructive behavior. He does it through conventional novelistic detail (Aaron’s slide into addiction is particularly harrowing) and psychological insight, unspooling Dustin’s own issues through flashbacks and present-day anxiety. But Chaon also plays with form, at one point splitting Aaron’s narrative into first-, second-, and third-person points of view running alongside each other in columns, the better to suggest disconnection from oneself. But this kind of rhetorical somersaulting doesn’t interfere with the main narrative, and though the novel at times feels baggy, especially the present-day serial-killer plot, overall Chaon has mastered multiple psychologically complex and often fearsome characters.
A shadowy narrative that’s carried well by the author’s command and insight.
The residents of a small town in the Berkshires have their world overturned by a billionaire in their midst.
This is a novel with political motives, so much so that it recalls The Fountainhead, except Dee (A Thousand Pardons, 2013, etc.) is a better writer than Ayn Rand by several orders of magnitude, and his point seems to be virtually the opposite of hers. The drama begins on Sept. 11, 2001, when Mark Firth, visiting New York from Howland, Massachusetts, unhappily learns that his meeting with a lawyer has been cancelled. This attorney is representing the plaintiffs in a class-action suit against a con-artist financial adviser who stole their money—in Firth's case, his entire savings. He’s not the only Howland resident who will be struggling in the coming months. Though relief over his safe return smooths things over for a while, Mark’s wife is far from happy in either her marriage or her job, working as a teacher’s aide at a private school so her daughter can get reduced tuition. His brother, Gerry, is fired from Century 21 for an indiscretion; their sister, Candace, is furious at both of them for not helping out with their decrepit parents, and her day job is not on solid ground either. The town is feeling the pinch as well, but the last thing strapped residents want is another tax hike. When their First Selectman unexpectedly dies, Philip Hadi steps into the breach. The Hadis used to be summer people, but in the wake of 9/11 they moved to the country full time, first installing a set of security cameras. Hadi’s solution to Howland’s troubles begins with cutting government to the bare essentials; according to him, past tax increases were only necessary to feed the bureaucracy itself. If there's a real need for something they can’t afford—why, he’ll just pay for it. What happens to the citizens of Howland after that plays both as political allegory and kaleidoscopic character study.
An absorbing panorama of small-town life and a study of democracy in miniature, with both the people and their polity facing real and particular contemporary pressures.
The Belfast-born writer etches an affecting portrait of a couple more than 40 years married as they confront the idea that one of them is thinking of leaving.
Stella is a retired English teacher who likes to do cryptic crosswords as mental exercise. Her husband, Gerry, is a retired architect who likes to drink. They grew up and met in Northern Ireland but now live in Scotland, apparently exiled by the violence of the “thirty years war,” a time 74-year-old MacLaverty (Collected Stories, 2014, etc.) wrote of in Cal and elsewhere. That all is not well with the marriage may first be gleaned from their taking a January holiday in Amsterdam—an odd time and place to seek a break from the Glasgow winter. The signs and sounds of friction emerge as the two characters exhibit and silently or orally comment on the routines, tics, and habits fostered by four decades of marriage, an accretion that, like coral, can offer both protection and sharp edges. Deploying a masterful palette of details and allusions, MacLaverty reveals that Stella is on a mission that involves a Dutch Beguinage—a women's religious community—an old vow, her Catholic faith, and three scars: one from a C-section and two puckered circles on the front and back of her torso that are long left unexplained. Gerry’s boozing, so sadly and desperately on display in these few days, and his often acerbic jabs at Catholicism—a seeming relic of the Troubles—buttress her resolve, but they aren’t apparently decisive. MacLaverty makes the reader share some of the regret in the prospect of a sudden sundering by giving the couple a keen, humorous, mutually delightful banter that comes only with years of wit and happy practice.
A closely observed, deeply sympathetic rendering of a relationship and the fissures that threaten to wreck it.
A young girl disappears outside a small village in northern England.
With just four books, McGregor (This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, 2012, etc.) has already made a substantial impact on the literary scene; three of his novels, including this one, have been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and he won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Even the Dogs (2010). His latest, an atmospheric, meticulously crafted novel, begins like a mystery then quickly morphs into something altogether different. A family is visiting an English village for the New Year, and their 13-year-old daughter, Rebecca, goes for a walk and doesn’t return. The police conduct a search with some villagers at dawn. A helicopter has been out all night but found nothing. A van with fake number plates is discovered near Reservoir 7, and someone says it belonged to a man named Woods, who "wasn't the type of bloke you wanted to be talking to the police about." Six months pass: “It was as though the ground had just opened up and swallowed her whole.” In 13 chapters, each dealing with one year, an omniscient narrator chronicles the lives of the villagers and the impact the girl’s disappearance has on them. All the chapters after the first begin the same way, “At midnight when the year turned,” like refrains in the stanzas of a prose poem. Sentences and words are rhythmically repeated. People have dreams about Rebecca “walking home. Walking beside the motorway, walking across the moor, walking up out of one of the reservoirs." A “creeping normality” sets in. In simple, quiet, and deliberate prose, McGregor describes the passing months. The seasons change, “bees stumbled fatly between the flowers and the slugs gorged” while "in the dusk the wood pigeons gathered to roost.” The villagers—Jones the carpenter; Jane Hughes the vicar; Sally; Liam—go on with their lives. “It went on like this. This was how it went on.” The pantomime is performed every December. “Dreams were had about her, still.”
A stunningly good, understated novel told in a mesmerizing voice.
Messud (The Woman Upstairs, 2013, etc.) investigates the fraught intricacies of friendship and adolescence as two girls grow up and grow apart in a small Massachusetts town.
About to start her senior year of high school, narrator Julia painfully traces the loss of her childhood friend Cassie, a bold rule-breaker who goaded and thrilled cautious Julia even as she relied on her friend’s good sense to keep them safe. During the charmed intimacy of childhood, Julia wistfully recalls, “we had one mind and could roam its limits together, inventing stories and making ourselves as we wanted them to be.” But in seventh grade Cassie drifts away to a more popular crowd, adding insult to injury by dating and then dropping Peter, an older boy she knows Julia likes. With characteristically lucid prose, Messud perfectly captures the agonizing social insecurities of middle school in Julia’s seething assessment that Cassie “thought she could laugh at me to my face…she was Regina George from Mean Girls and I was Janis.” Payback comes when Cassie’s widowed mother, Bev, falls in love with Dr. Anders Shute, who may have an unhealthy interest in Cassie and certainly encourages Bev to confine and control her in ways that lead to a crisis. By this time, Julia has new friends of her own and a more secure social niche in ninth grade; she knows Cassie is in trouble but is too hurt and too invested in her new role—this is very much a book about masks and performances—to respond when Cassie tentatively reaches out. Although their shared past gives Julia the knowledge to forestall disaster when Cassie vanishes, Messud also suggests that we never truly know another, not even those we love best. That stark worldview only slowly becomes apparent in a narrative that for a long time seems more overwrought than events call for (it is, after all, narrated by a teenager), but by the novel’s closing pages it packs an emotional wallop.
A boy’s schoolroom punishment opens a window into the roiling, mystical history of a Jamaican community.
When Kaia arrives at the home of his great-aunt Ma Taffy from school with his dreadlocks shorn off, it’s more than a case of a teacher taking discipline too far. It’s a direct attack on the family’s Rastafarian heritage, and the incident prompts Ma Taffy to think back on the history of Kingston's Augustown neighborhood and the persecutions two generations past. More specifically, she recalls the story of Alexander Bedward, a proto-Rastafari preacher who in the 1920s captivated the island with rumors that he was able to levitate. And, just as Bedward was attacked by the then-ruling British government threatened by his popularity, Miller suggests that the bigotry persisted into 1982, when the story is set. Miller’s excellent third novel is built on sharp, sensitive portraits of key players in what at first seems a minor incident, from Ma Taffy and Bedward to Kaia’s teacher, the school principal, and neighborhood gangsters, each of whom are fending off personal and cultural misunderstandings. To that end, they’re all subject to the concept of “autoclaps,” Jamaican slang for calamity; Miller returns to this point often, and storytelling suggests that Augustown (based on the real August Town) is a place where the other shoe keeps dropping. Miller insists that Bedward’s floating not be interpreted as sprightly magical realism but as a symbol for how the place is misunderstood and how such misunderstandings feed into needless violence: “Consider...not whether you believe in this story or not,” he writes, “but whether this story is about the kinds of people you have never taken the time to believe in.”
Despite the novel’s relative brevity, Miller captures the ways community, faith, and class create a variety of cultural microclimates.
The first novel in 20 years from Roy (The God of Small Things, 1997, etc.) and a book worth the wait: a humane, engaged tale of love, politics, and no small amount of suffering.
Who is the fairest of them all, Anjum or Tilottama? Both are beautiful, each in her own way, but time has not been kind to either. Born with both male and female genitals and likened to the disappearing corpse-cleaning vultures of India, Anjum lives among ghosts, while Tilo has been caught up in an independence movement and risks execution at the hands of a coldly technocratic army officer. Roy’s latest begins as a near fairy tale that soon turns dark, full of characters and their meetings, accidental and orchestrated alike, in the streets, rooming houses, and business offices of Delhi: school friends become partners in political crime, lovers become strangers to one another. Of one such pair, Roy writes, "He, a revolutionary trapped in an accountant’s mind. She, a woman trapped in a man’s body." But, Roy tells us, identities are what we make of them; in an early scene, the mother of a child the other children taunt as “She-He, He-She Hee!” seeks guidance in a temple consecrated to a Jewish merchant who moved from Armenia to Delhi, converted to Islam, and ended life dangerously committing blasphemy by virtue of his uncertainty about the nature of God. So it is with all the people of Roy’s book, each trying to live right in this world of “fucked-up unexpectedness.” Roy’s novel shows clear kinship with Gabriel García Márquez’s OneHundred Years of Solitude, a story that, like hers, begins and ends with death; the first and last place we see here is a cemetery. But there are other echoes, including a nicely subtle nod to Salman Rushdie, as Roy constructs a busy world in which characters cross boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and gender to find, yes, that utmost happiness of which the title speaks.
An assured novel borne along by a swiftly moving storyline that addresses the most profound issues with elegant humor. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait two decades for its successor.
Khalil and Maria, biracial Stanford graduates whose Martha’s Vineyard wedding will be featured in the New York Times, hit a bump in the road when Maria develops a crush on another man.
Khalil Mirsky is the dreadlocked, Hacky Sack–playing son of a Jewish man and an African-American woman, “the only black guy at the frat party—the Hootie in his Blowfish.” Maria Pierce is so light that white people make racist jokes in front of her, thus suffering “that particular rage of the light-skinned individual,” as her black adoptive mother puts it. From the moment they get together, Khalil and Maria are the “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom,” their skin “the same shade of beige”—or as Khalil describes it to the woman filming them for a documentary called “New People,” “a Woody Allen movie, with melanin.” Maria is more cynical about their biracial fairy tale, their Brooklyn lifestyle, the future baby they'll name Indigo or Thelonious Mirsky-Pierce, "the messiah of Mulatto Nation.” Her second thoughts take the form of an obsessive crush on a poet who is not a New Person, a “brown-skinned black boy with a shaved head…the body, the skin, the face that cabdrivers pretend not to see.” Senna’s (You Are Free, 2011, etc.) fearless novel is equal parts beguiling and disturbing, and nowhere more so than in a hilarious, ultimately terrifying series of events that begins when a tired white lady mistakes Maria for her nanny, Consuela, and leaves her in charge of her infant. Senna combines the clued-in status details you’d find in a New York magazine article with the narrative invention of big-league fiction. Every detail and subplot, including Maria’s dissertation on the Jonestown massacre and her buried secret about a college prank gone awry, is resonant.
A great book about race and a great book all around.
A girl’s friendship with an older neighbor stands at the center of this multifaceted meditation on aging, art, love, and affection.
Smith (Public Library and Other Stories, 2016, etc.) opens this volume, the first of a planned quartet featuring each season, with a man washed ashore naked. He wonders if he is dead. He sees a girl nearby and sews himself some clothing from leaves after a needle and a bobbin of gold thread appear in his hand. From dream or fantasy, the narrative shifts to hard reality: the man, Daniel, next appears asleep in a hospital bed in the present time, age 101. His visitor is Elisabeth, age 32, a university lecturer in art history who has just endured the painful comedy of bureaucracy while trying to renew her passport at the post office. She met Daniel when she was 8 and needed to interview him for a school project. The book will jump around in time as Daniel introduces Elisabeth to puns, storytelling, and art, especially that of a woman he loved named Pauline Boty. She was an actual U.K. artist of the pop era who made a brief appearance in the movie Alfie. Her work included a portrait of Christine Keeler during the Profumo Affair, and Smith has fun with Keeler’s court appearances. History is also current, as Smith touches on the friction caused by Brexit nationwide (with a pointed opening allusion to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities) and in one town where some undefined menace arises with the installation of large electrified fences. Smith has a gift for drawing a reader into whatever world she creates, even when she bends the rules of fiction, as she did also in her previous novel, How to Be Both (2014).
Smith's book is a kaleidoscope whose suggestive fragments and insights don’t easily render a pleasing pattern, yet it’s compelling in its emotional and historical freight, its humor, and keen sense of creativity and loss.