In her early 40s, Cate is tired of low-paying theater gigs, handouts from her parents, and a furtive affair with Dana, who will never leave her live-in girlfriend.
It’s also annoying that she can’t dislodge ex-husband Graham, just dumped by wife No. 3 from her spare bedroom and from his obsession with government surveillance—paranoia entirely justified, in his view, by Donald Trump’s recent election. Still, Cate seems on her way to better things; she’s dating well-heeled Maureen and lands a job designing an off-Broadway show for a high-powered writer-director team that could ratchet up her career. However, menacing interspersed sections voiced by Nathan, a sociopath living with drug addicted Irene, suggest danger ahead. It’s quickly evident that their crash pad is somewhere near Cate’s best friend Neale’s house, and as Nathan’s monologues grow increasingly creepier, we wait for a collision. Meanwhile, Anshaw (Carry the One, 2012, etc.) crafts an engaging narrative with her customary precision and tart humor: A blowsy, “recently pretty” character “appears to do most of her shopping at Renaissance fairs,” and parking enforcement in Chicago, “once a lazy, city-run revenue effort, has been sold off to a ruthless corporation based somewhere in the Middle East…meter readers in Day-Glo vests troll relentlessly, ubiquitously.” In a cast of richly drawn characters, Cate is foremost: oddly maladroit socially for a theater worker, madly in love with Graham’s dog, Sailor, prone to imagining people’s backstories (including the décor of their homes) in judgmental terms, but essentially kind. She’s totally unprepared for the brutal confrontation that occurs halfway through the novel, but she forges ahead with her big opportunity in New York, just the way people do in real life. Anshaw never amps up her fiction with melodrama or neat conclusions, and she leaves her characters changed but by no means finished in an indeterminate yet satisfying finale.
Another treat from the great Anshaw: sharply observed, unsentimentally compassionate, always cognizant of life’s complexities.
After the brutish family patriarch has a heart attack, the surviving Tuchmans (mostly) gather at his deathbed, each of them struggling to make sense of their past—and come to terms with their present.
“He was an angry man, and he was an ugly man,” the novel begins, “and he was tall, and he was pacing,” and this is how we meet Victor Tuchman in the moments before he collapses. And so the family begins to assemble: Alex, his daughter, a newly divorced lawyer, arrives in New Orleans from the Chicago suburbs; his long-suffering wife, Barbra, tiny and stoic, is already there. His son, Gary, is very notably absent, but Gary’s wife, Twyla—a family outlier, Southern and blonde—is in attendance, with her own family secrets. The novel takes place in one very long day but encompasses the entirety of lifetimes: Barbra’s life before marrying Victor and the life they led after; Alex’s unhappy Connecticut childhood and the growing gulf between her and her criminal father—irreconcilable, even in death. It encompasses Gary’s earnest attempt to build a stable family life, to escape his family through Twyla, and Twyla’s own search for meaning. Even the background characters have stories: the EMS worker who wants to move in with his girlfriend who doesn’t love him; the CVS cashier leaving for school in Atlanta next year. The Tuchmans won’t learn those stories, though, just as they won’t learn each other's, even the shared ones. Victor is the force that brings them together but also the rift that divides them. Alex wants the truth about her father, and Barbra won’t tell her; Gary wants the truth about his disintegrating marriage, and Twyla can’t explain. Prickly and unsentimental, but never quite hopeless, Attenberg (All Grown Up, 2017, etc.), poet laureate of difficult families, captures the relentlessly lonely beauty of being alive.
A woman comes to terms with how her immigration to America affects her family back home in Jamaica—and herself.
For the follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut novel, Here Comes the Sun (2016), Dennis-Benn returns briefly to Jamaica before shifting her locale to Brooklyn. It’s 1998, and single mother Patsy isn't able to get a tourist visa at the American Embassy in Kingston until she agrees to leave Trudy-Ann, her 5-year-old daughter, behind. Patsy’s American dreams are not just about a better financial future for Tru; she has long hoped to reunite with the love of her life, her childhood girlfriend, Cicely, now living in Brooklyn. But her dreams are stymied by the difficult reality of finding work in New York—despite Patsy’s best efforts, the only employment she can find is as a bathroom attendant, cleaning toilets—and by Cicely’s marriage to an abusive, overbearing man. Cicely, now a woman “smelling of expensive flowers and looking resplendent in a long purple peacoat cinched at the waist with a belt, a colorful silk scarf wrapped around her neck, still holding on to her Chanel handbag,” would rather stay with her husband than lose the lifestyle his wealth provides her. Tru, meanwhile, is sent to live with the father she doesn’t know. Alternating between Patsy's and Tru's stories, Dennis-Benn allows each character’s experience an equal depth and presence in the book. Slowly Patsy comes into her own, finding work as a nanny, but as Tru comes of age back in Jamaica missing her mother, Patsy, looking after another woman’s child, is haunted by the absence of her own daughter and the choices she must continue to make to survive in America, alone. Although she's lovingly drawn by Dennis-Benn, Patsy has done the single most-damning thing a mother can do in our society: She has abandoned her child. It's a marker of Dennis-Benn’s masterful prowess at characterization and her elegant, nuanced writing that the people here—even when they're flawed or unlikable—inspire sympathy and respect.
Dennis-Benn has written a profound book about sexuality, gender, race, and immigration that speaks to the contemporary moment through the figure of a woman alive with passion and regret.
Goldberg (The False Friend, 2010, etc.) writes the fictional biography of a female photographer whose career is sidetracked by controversy surrounding intimate pictures of her young daughter.
The character Lillian Preston may initially remind readers of Sally Mann, whose photographs of her children created debate in the early 1990s. But Lillian’s story, which takes place primarily in the 1950s through 1970s, is singularly her own. After falling in love with photography at her Cleveland high school, Lillian dismays her doting but conventional parents by moving to New York City, lovingly portrayed in all its gritty glamour, to pursue her dream. For Lillian, photography is all-consuming, her camera an extension of her arm. But once Samantha is born, the result of a brief affair, Lillian’s artistic ambition becomes entangled with fierce mother-love. Quiet, easily ignored, Lillian’s forte is shooting unposed street scenes. Her obvious genius brings her critical notice (if no money) in the NYC art world until an avant-garde gallery owner is charged with “pandering obscenity” by exhibiting photographs of 6-year-old Samantha in her underwear, one taken while Lillian was recovering from an abortion and unable to go outside. Neither Lillian’s career nor Samantha’s childhood recovers—a case of every mom’s fear of screwing up writ large. The novel is structured as the catalog Samantha puts together for a retrospective of Lillian’s work at the Modern Museum of Art years after her death. Photograph by photograph, Samantha sets the scene through her memories of her deeply complicated relationship with her mother, recorded interviews with people who knew Lillian, letters from Lillian to others, and Lillian’s private journal. The collage of impressions and reactions creates a holistic portrait that also allows Samantha and more secondary characters, like Lillian’s high school boyfriend, to reveal their own complexities. Lillian herself—selfishly single-minded in her artistic drive but genuinely protective of her child and often desperately lonely—is both larger than life and thoroughly human.
A riveting portrait of an artist who happens to be a woman.
In which the author scrupulously investigates his upper-middle-class upbringing to confront its messy interior of violence, betrayal, and mental illness.
Adam, the center and occasional narrator of Lerner’s (The Hatred of Poetry, 2016, etc.) essayistic and engrossing novel, enjoyed a privileged adolescence in the Kansas capital during the 1990s: He competed nationally in debate, had plenty of friends, and was close to his parents, two psychologists at an illustrious foundation. (Lerner is again in autofiction mode; he, too, competed in high school debate, and his parents are psychologists who’ve worked at Topeka’s Menninger Clinic.) But all is not well: Fred Phelps’ homophobic Westboro Baptist Church recurs in the narrative, a childhood concussion has left Adam with migraines, and his parents’ marriage is strained. Lerner alternates sections written from the perspectives of Adam, his mother, and his father with interludes about Darren, a mentally troubled teen who committed an act of violence at a party that Adam feels complicit in. How much? Hard to say, but the book sensitively gathers up the evidence of abuse, violation, and cruelty in Adam’s life. Though the conflicts are often modest, like Adam's mom’s fending off Phelps-ian trolls angry at her bestselling book, Lerner convincingly argues they're worth intense scrutiny. As a debate competitor, Adam had to confront a "spread"—an opponent's laying out a fearsome number of arguments, each requiring rebuttals—and Lerner is doing much the same with his adolescence. How do childhood microaggressions build into a singular violent act? Were the rhetorical debates between the Phelpses and the foundation a rehearsal for contemporary Trumpian politics? Few writers are so deeply engaged as Lerner in how our interior selves are shaped by memory and consequence, and if he finds no clear conclusion to his explorations, it makes the “Darren Eberheart situation” increasingly powerful and heartbreaking as the story moves on.
Autofiction at its smartest and most effective: self-interested, self-interrogating, but never self-involved.
Bleak House meets Our Town in a century-spanning novel set in a New England bowling alley.
More than many writers, McCracken (Thunderstruck and Other Stories, 2014, etc.) understands the vast variety of ways to be human and the vast variety of ways human beings have come up with to love each other, not all of them benevolent. She also understands how all those different ways spring from the same yearning impulse. She names her new novel—which she calls “a genealogy”—after its setting, a candlepin bowling alley founded by the novel’s matriarch, who is said to have invented the game. “Maybe somebody else had invented the game first. That doesn’t matter. We have all of us invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich involving avocado and an onion roll, a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life.” McCracken's parade of Dickensian grotesques fall in love, feud, reproduce, vanish, and reappear, all with a ridiculous dignity that many readers, if they’re honest, will cringe to recognize from their own lives. The plot is stylized: One character dies in the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, another by spontaneous human combustion. There are orphans, secret wills, and hidden treasure. But unlike Dickens’, McCracken’s plot works more by iteration than clockwork, like linked stories, or a series of views of the same landscape from different vantage points in different seasons, or the frames in a bowling game. Her psychological acuity transforms what might otherwise have been a twee clutter of oddball details into moving metaphors for the human condition. “Our subject is love,” she writes. “Unrequited love, you might think, the heedless headstrong ball that hurtles nearsighted down the alley. It has to get close before it can pick out which pin it loves the most, which pin it longs to set spinning. Then I love you! Then blammo. The pins are reduced to a pile, each one entirely all right in itself. Intact and bashed about. Again and again, the pins stand for it until they’re knocked down.”
Parents and children, lovers, brothers and sisters, estranged spouses, work friends and teammates all slam themselves together and fling themselves apart across the decades in the glorious clatter of McCracken’s unconventional storytelling.
The husband and father whose death haunted two previous novels about the Maxwell family (Wish You Were Here, 2002; Emily, Alone, 2011) speaks for himself in this moving third installment.
The prolific and protean O’Nan (City of Secrets, 2016, etc.) has ranged with aplomb over many genres and locales, but his heart is most evidently engaged in the novels set in his native Pittsburgh. The city has been home to Henry Maxwell’s family for generations, but his neighborhood is changing; there are supermarkets he doesn’t like wife Emily shopping in alone, and the couple is shaken by reports of an assault-rifle attack on a nearby backyard party. The traditions that sustain and nourish Henry—weekly churchgoing, holiday charitable giving, the annual spring flower show, summers at their cottage by the lake in Chautauqua—seem to be cherished only by a dwindling band of elderly folks like himself. As the novel progresses through the year 1998, O’Nan poignantly captures Henry’s sense of loss and diminishment—he is 74 and overweight with bad cholesterol—while tenderly evoking his enduring love for prickly Emily, his devotion to their two children and four grandchildren, and the pleasure this retired engineer takes in puttering in the garage and tending to the house. Memories of his past are deftly interpolated to illuminate the childhood and wartime experiences that shaped a quiet, slightly distant man who dislikes conflict. Several flashbacks to World War II are particularly notable for the delicacy with which O’Nan unfolds the lasting impact of Henry’s combat experiences. As usual, this profoundly unpretentious writer employs lucid, no-frills prose to cogently convey complicated emotions and fraught family interactions. The novel makes no claims for Henry or his kin as exceptional people but instead celebrates the fullness and uniqueness of each ordinary human being.
Astute and tender, rich in lovely images and revealing details—another wonderful piece of work from the immensely gifted O’Nan.
Their mother's disappearance cements an unbreakable connection between a pair of poor-little-rich-kid siblings.
Like The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer or Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach, this is a deeply pleasurable book about a big house and the family that lives in it. Toward the end of World War II, real estate developer and landlord Cyril Conroy surprises his wife, Elna, with the keys to a mansion in the Elkins Park neighborhood of Philadelphia. Elna, who had no idea how much money her husband had amassed and still thought they were poor, is appalled by the luxurious property, which comes fully furnished and complete with imposing portraits of its former owners (Dutch people named VanHoebeek) as well as a servant girl named Fluffy. When her son, Danny, is 3 and daughter, Maeve, is 10, Elna's antipathy for the place sends her on the lam—first occasionally, then permanently. This leaves the children with the household help and their rigid, chilly father, but the difficulties of the first year pale when a stepmother and stepsisters appear on the scene. Then those problems are completely dwarfed by further misfortune. It's Danny who tells the story, and he's a wonderful narrator, stubborn in his positions, devoted to his sister, and quite clear about various errors—like going to medical school when he has no intention of becoming a doctor—while utterly committed to them. "We had made a fetish out of our disappointment," he says at one point, "fallen in love with it." Casually stated but astute observations about human nature are Patchett's (Commonwealth, 2016, etc.) stock in trade, and she again proves herself a master of aging an ensemble cast of characters over many decades. In this story, only the house doesn't change. You will close the book half believing you could drive to Elkins Park and see it.
Like the many-windowed mansion at its center, this richly furnished novel gives brilliantly clear views into the lives it contains.
A literary twin experiment: At the heart of this comic novel about supersmart, language-obsessed sisters are profound questions about how close two human beings can be.
"Was there anyone who understood anyone else as well as she and Daphne understood each other? There was no need to explain or justify wanting to climb linoleum M.C. Escher stairs to live in a tenement their grandparents had probably moved out of the minute they could, because Daphne already understood. Understanding is love, Laurel thought." The darling redheaded twin daughters of Arthur and Sally Wolfe of Larchmont, New York, Laurel and Daphne invent their own language while still in the crib, then embrace English with a passion that lasts the rest of their lives. “Fugacious…oxters…promptuary….They played with the words as if they were toys...involving them in intrigues of love and friendship and bitter enmity." Elegant chapters, each headed with a classic definition from Samuel Johnson's dictionary, follow the identical pair through childhood to that post-collegiate tenement apartment where the first rumblings of what will come to be known as the Rift are heard. By the time of their double wedding, Laurel and Daphne are more aware of their differences than their similarities. As 17-minutes-younger Daphne becomes a famous language columnist and 17-minutes-older Laurel becomes a kindergarten teacher, then a mom, the power between them shifts dangerously—then real hostilities are launched during a disagreement about the relative importance of Fowler's Modern English Usage and The Chicago Manual of Style. As we've come to expect in 10 previous novels, Schine's (They May Not Mean To, but They Do, 2016, etc.) warmth and wisdom about how families work and don't work are as reliable as her wry humor, and we often get both together: "Michael suspected Larry was as smart as anyone, just not paying attention. Like a Galapagos tortoise, he had no need to pay attention. He had no predators. He was protected by an expansive carapace of good nature, money, and family status."
This impossibly endearing and clever novel sets off a depth charge of emotion and meaning.
Woodson sings a fresh song of Brooklyn, an aria to generations of an African American family.
National Book Award winner Woodson (Harbor Me, 2018, etc.) returns to her cherished Brooklyn, its “cardinals and flowers and bright-colored cars. Little girls with purple ribbons and old women with swollen ankles.” For her latest coming-of-age story, Woodson opens in the voice of Melody, waiting on the interior stairs of her grandparents’ brownstone. She’s 16, making her debut, a “ritual of marking class and time and transition.” She insists that the assembled musicians play Prince’s risqué “Darling Nikki” as she descends. Melody jabs at her mother, Iris, saying “It’s Prince. And it’s my ceremony and he’s a genius so why are we even still talking about it? You already nixed the words. Let me at least have the music.” Woodson famously nails the adolescent voice. But so, too, she burnishes all her characters’ perspectives. Iris’ sexual yearning for another girl at Oberlin College gives this novel its title: “She felt red at the bone—like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.” By then, Iris had all but abandoned toddler Melody and the toddler’s father, Aubrey, in that ancestral brownstone to make her own way. In 21 lyrical chapters, readers hear from both of Iris’ parents, who met at Morehouse, and Aubrey’s mother, CathyMarie, who stretched the margarine and grape jelly sandwiches to see him grown. Woodson’s ear for music—whether Walt Whitman's or A Tribe Called Quest's—is exhilarating, as is her eye for detail. Aubrey and little Melody, holding hands, listen to an old man whose “bottom dentures were loose in his mouth, moving in small circles as he spoke.” The novel itself circles elegantly back to its beginning, Melody and Iris in 2001 for a brava finale, but not before braiding the 1921 Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the fires of 9/11. The thread is held by Iris’ mother, Sabe, who hangs on through her fatal illness “a little while longer. Until Melody and Iris can figure each other out.”
In Woodson, at the height of her powers, readers hear the blues: “beneath that joy, such a sadness.”