An absorbing saga of 20th-century Korean experience, seen through the fate of four generations.
Lee (Free Food for Millionaires, 2007) built her debut novel around families of Korean-Americans living in New York. In her second novel, she traces the Korean diaspora back to the time of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. “History has failed us,” she writes in the opening line of the current epic, “but no matter.” She begins her tale in a village in Busan with an aging fisherman and his wife whose son is born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot. Nonetheless, he is matched with a fine wife, and the two of them run the boardinghouse he inherits from his parents. After many losses, the couple cherishes their smart, hardworking daughter, Sunja. When Sunja gets pregnant after a dalliance with a persistent, wealthy married man, one of their boarders—a sickly but handsome and deeply kind pastor—offers to marry her and take her away with him to Japan. There, she meets his brother and sister-in-law, a woman lovely in face and spirit, full of entrepreneurial ambition that she and Sunja will realize together as they support the family with kimchi and candy operations through war and hard times. Sunja’s first son becomes a brilliant scholar; her second ends up making a fortune running parlors for pachinko, a pinball-like game played for money. Meanwhile, her first son’s real father, the married rich guy, is never far from the scene, a source of both invaluable help and heartbreaking woe. As the destinies of Sunja’s children and grandchildren unfold, love, luck, and talent combine with cruelty and random misfortune in a deeply compelling story, with the troubles of ethnic Koreans living in Japan never far from view.
An old-fashioned epic whose simple, captivating storytelling delivers both wisdom and truth.
The final installment of this bestselling saga of life among the billionaires of Singapore puts the family matriarch at death’s door—which means somebody’s going to inherit her exquisite estate.
The fairy tale/soap opera/lux-a-thon that began with Crazy Rich Asians (2013) and China Rich Girlfriend (2015) comes to a fittingly majestic and hilarious end in Kwan’s third novel. When Su Yi’s health precipitously fails, Shang-Young family members from all over the globe assemble at Tyersall Park—some out of genuine concern, others to callously go after their piece of the pie (this contingent is led by the always hilariously awful and overdressed Eddie Cheng). The only two family members missing are those Su Yi is most attached to—her grandchildren Nicky Young and Astrid Leong. Nicky hasn’t spoken to his grandmother since he married beneath his station five years ago, and though he tries to rush to her side, the guards at Tyersall Park have been instructed not to let him in. How can that be? Meanwhile, Astrid is in the midst of getting engaged to her beloved Charlie Wu at a palace in India complete with elephants when paparazzi hell breaks loose, unleashing a chain of events that includes a leaked sex tape and a suicide attempt involving a Lindsay Adelman chandelier. As the sharks circle at Tyersall Park, related dramas play out around the globe, including an all-out, multicontinental war between Kitty Pong and Colette Bing. Also unfolding is the amazing back story of Su Yi’s secret involvement in World War II, which turns out to have significant bearing on her legacy. Readers who thought they didn’t like to read about rich people will quickly lose all high-minded pretensions as they revel in the food, fashions, real estate, and art so lusciously strewn through this irresistible, knowing, and even sometimes moving story. Things that are this much fun are usually illegal.
Alamak! as they say in Singapore. Please say it isn’t over! Of course everything’s wrapped up perfectly and tied with a (priceless, hand-painted, 15th century) bow—but not since we were kicked out of Hogwarts and Downton Abbey have we felt so adrift.
This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright.
It’s not for nothing that Ng (Everything I Never Told You, 2014) begins her second novel, about the events leading to the burning of the home of an outwardly perfect-seeming family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997, with two epigraphs about the planned community itself—attesting to its ability to provide its residents with “protection forever against…unwelcome change” and “a rather happy life” in Utopia. But unwelcome change is precisely what disrupts the Richardson family’s rather happy life, when Mia, a charismatic, somewhat mysterious artist, and her smart, shy 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, move to town and become tenants in a rental house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents. Mia and Pearl live a markedly different life from the Richardsons, an affluent couple and their four high school–age children—making art instead of money (apart from what little they need to get by); rooted in each other rather than a particular place (packing up what fits in their battered VW and moving on when “the bug” hits); and assembling a hodgepodge home from creatively repurposed, scavenged castoffs and love rather than gathering around them the symbols of a successful life in the American suburbs (a big house, a large family, gleaming appliances, chic clothes, many cars). What really sets Mia and Pearl apart and sets in motion the events leading to the “little fires everywhere” that will consume the Richardsons’ secure, stable world, however, is the way they hew to their own rules. In a place like Shaker Heights, a town built on plans and rules, and for a family like the Richardsons, who have structured their lives according to them, disdain for conformity acts as an accelerant, setting fire to the dormant sparks within them. The ultimate effect is cataclysmic. As in Everything I Never Told You, Ng conjures a sense of place and displacement and shows a remarkable ability to see—and reveal—a story from different perspectives. The characters she creates here are wonderfully appealing, and watching their paths connect—like little trails of flame leading inexorably toward one another to create a big inferno—is mesmerizing, casting into new light ideas about creativity and consumerism, parenthood and privilege.
With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.
“Nostalgia is an affliction” a character states in Palestinian-American poet Alyan’s impressive first novel, which tracks the dispersal of four generations of a Palestinian family.
As matriarch Salma reads the future in a cup of coffee the night before her daughter Alia’s wedding in 1963, the Yacoub family has already been uprooted for 15 years. In the decades to come the Yacoubs’ distinctly personal experiences will mirror the experiences of immigrants and refugees around the world and the Palestinians’ dislocation in particular. Salma feels lucky; unlike others moved into resettlement camps when Israelis forced them from Jaffa, her husband’s wealth afforded them a house in Nablus. But transience has become the Yacoubs’ way of life. Alia’s older, more traditional sister, Widad, has already moved to Kuwait in an arranged marriage. When the Six-Day War breaks out in 1967, Alia happens to be visiting Widad in Kuwait City while her husband, Atef, and beloved brother, Mustafa, close friends and anti-occupation activists, remain trapped in Palestine. Only Atef makes it to Kuwait, with a secret guilt that will haunt him for years. Unlike her sister, the independent-minded Alia has married Atef, a professor, for love. Their difficult marriage becomes one of the novel’s most compelling elements as the couple creates a life in Kuwait with their three children—Riham, Karam, and Souad—until the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait war forces them to flee to Amman. Karam is sent to college in Boston and becomes an assimilated American despite summers with his kids in an inherited apartment in Beirut. Artsy Souad also ends up in Boston but never feels at home in America. After a divorce, she moves to Beirut, where she re-creates herself. While more traditionally religious than her relatively cosmopolitan siblings, Riham is as disturbed as any Western reader when her adolescent stepson flirts with political extremism. In the next generation, Souad’s daughter finds her own sense of displacement painful yet freeing. It’s not always easy to follow Alyan’s complex geographic and emotional mapping, but this journey is well worth taking.
A deeply moving look inside the Palestinian diaspora.
In her debut novel, the author of the charming short story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow (2015) matures into new (equally beguiling) terrain, exploring marriage, fidelity, friendship, and parenting.
It’s easy to see why Graham, one-half of the New York City couple at the center of Heiny’s first novel, is enthralled by his wife of 12 years, Audra. While Graham, a medical-venture specialist at a venture capitalist firm, is steady, stable, and fond of “routine and order,” Audra, a freelance graphic designer 15 years his junior, is an unrestrained force of good nature. Audra’s vivacity offers a stark contrast to Graham’s emotionally cool first wife, Elspeth, with whom the couple reconnects. Audra draws all manner of friends and random strangers into her orbit with her chatty sociability and almost unwavering cheer. She cannot make it through a trip to the grocery store without running into a million people she knows (Graham says it’s like shopping with “a visiting dignity”) and bonding big-time with the checkout guy, is constantly inviting people (a woman she barely knows from her book group whose husband has been unfaithful; their building’s afternoon doorman, for a reason Graham cannot recall) to move into their den or eat at their table. Audra is forever on the phone, helping out with PTA activities at the school attended by their 10-year-old son, Matthew, who has Asperger’s and is some kind of origami prodigy, or chatting with her best friend, Lorelei. Like Graham, the reader may be deeply enchanted with, if also somewhat mystified by, Audra. She’s a wonderful character, as are many of those assembled around her, and the series of minor challenges she and Graham face (potential infidelities, possible pregnancy, challenging play dates, and other parental concerns)—she pluckily; he sheepishly—make for reading as delicious as the meals Graham is forever called into service to cook for whomever Audra happens to have invited by that night. To quibble, the episodic, somewhat attenuated plot lacks a degree of urgency and loses a bit of steam midway through, but it regains its footing by the end. And to spend 300-plus pages with Heiny’s wry voice and colorful cast of characters is to love them, truly.
An amusingly engaging take on long-term marriage with a lovably loopy character at its center.
When a young political intern in South Florida has an affair with her boss, it leads to disaster—at least at first.
The best thing to come out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal since Lewinsky’s own magnificent TED talk, Zevin’s (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, 2014, etc.) fourth adult novel reinvents the familiar story more cleverly and warmly than one would have thought possible. Five sections come at the situation from different angles. The first is called “Bubbe Meise” ("Old Wives’ Tale" in Yiddish), and in it we hear the delightful old-Jewish-lady voice of Rachel Shapiro, a South Floridian who’s dipping her toe into online dating. She’s on a date that’s going quite well until the fellow asks her daughter’s name, and she tells him it’s Aviva, and he remarks that that was the name of that awful girl who got in trouble with Congressman Levin back in 2001. “You really don’t remember her? Well, Rach, she was like Monica Lewinsky.…It was a blight on South Florida, a blight on Jews, a blight on politicians if that’s even possible, a blight on civilization in general.” That's the end of that beautiful relationship. Rachel gives us the outlines of the debacle, after which her daughter disappeared, 13 years ago now. “I have a cell phone number. She calls me once or twice a year. I believe I have a grandchild. Yes, I would call this a sadness in my life.” To reveal more would be to give away too much, since part of the joy here is the unexpected way the story unfolds. I can tell you, as Rachel Shapiro might say, that you will hear from the eponymous Jane Young, who's a wedding planner in a small town in Maine, and that one of the sections is an adroit takeoff on the structure of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, also seen recently in Nathan Hill’s The Nix. Must be generational. References to Monica Lewinsky herself are a running theme, recalling the brutal true story underlying this delicious fictional one.
This book will not only thoroughly entertain everyone who reads it; it is the most immaculate takedown of slut-shaming in literature or anywhere else. Cheers, and gratitude, to the author.
The terrible beauty of life along the nation’s lower margins is summoned in this bold, bright, and sharp-eyed road novel.
In present-day Mississippi, citizens of all colors struggle much as their ancestors did against the persistence of poverty, the wages of sin, and the legacy of violence. Thirteen-year-old Jojo is a sensitive African-American boy living with his grandparents and his toddler sister, Kayla, somewhere along the Gulf Coast. Their mother, Leonie, is addicted to drugs and haunted by visions of her late brother, Given, a local football hero shot to death years before by a white youth offended at being bested in some supposedly friendly competition. Somehow, Leonie ends up marrying Michael, the shooter's cousin, who worked as a welder on the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The novel’s main story involves a road trip northward to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, where Michael’s about to be released from prison. Leonie, very much a hot mess, insists on taking both children along to pick up their father even though it’s clear from the start that Jojo—who's more nurturing to his sister than their mother is—in no way wants to make the journey, especially with his grandmother dying from cancer. Along the way, Jojo finds he’s the only one who sees and speaks to another spirit: Richie, an ill-fated friend of his grandfather’s who decades before was imprisoned at a brutal work camp when he was slightly younger than Jojo. Ward, a National Book Award winner for Salvage the Bones, (2011), has intimate knowledge of the Gulf Coast and its cultural complexities and recounts this jolting odyssey through the first-person voices of Jojo, Leonie, and occasionally Richie. They each evoke the swampy contours of the scenery but also the sweat, stickiness, and battered nerves that go along with a road trip. It’s a risky conceit, and Ward has to work to avoid making her narrators sound too much like poets. But any qualms are overpowered by the book’s intensely evocative imagery, musical rhetoric, and bountiful sympathy toward even the most exasperating of its characters. Remorse stalks the grown-ups like a search party, but grace in whatever form seems ready to salve their wounds, even the ones that don’t easily show.
As with the best and most meaningful American fiction these days, old truths are recast here in new realities rife with both peril and promise.