On the heels of her memoir (What Remains, 2005) about the death of her husband, who happened to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ nephew, Real Housewives of New York regular Radziwill returns with a glib, comic, probably autobiographical novel about a young Manhattan widow looking for love in all the wrong places.
Thirty-something journalist Claire’s domineering, much older husband, Charlie, a famous author and sexology expert, is walking down Madison Avenue after an adulterous assignation when a fake Giacometti statue falls off a crane and kills him. Although the nine-year marriage lacked passion, Claire finds herself at sea. Not that she’s anyone’s average widow; she lives in a gorgeous apartment and is gorgeous herself. Charlie has left an unfinished manuscript about a movie star named Jack Huxley, and his agent wants Claire to complete it. Her predictably gay friend, Ethan, sends her to a psychic, who warns her she will not find love for a year. Her best friend, Sasha, who is also an alcoholic and as shallow as a leaky wading pool, sends her to a “botanomanist,” who tells Claire pretty much the same thing. Neither of Claire’s two therapists is optimistic, either. After six months of widowhood, Claire is anxious to “get laid,” so she goes on three failed dates, one with a successful journalist, one with a billionaire and, finally, one with a hockey star. She meets and flirts with Jack at the opening of one of his films but gets drunk and ends up sleeping with the co-star (think Bradley Cooper instead of George Clooney, poor girl). Eventually, she and narcissist Jack do connect and begin an affair of sorts; it is magic when they are together, but they are together only when he calls, which is not often. Will she grow out of Jack and into someone better? This may be a grief and recovery story for the privileged, but sharp-fanged Radziwill can be pretty funny as she mocks Claire’s friends and family.
No surprise that negotiations for a television series are already under way; think Sex and the City in black.
McCabe’s debut novel echoes with the Civil War battlefield’s ear-shattering noise and gut-wrenching smells, but its heart is a shining story of enduring love.
In 1862, Jeremiah Wakefield, New York country boy, hears the Union’s call and the lure of an enlistment bonus that will finance a farm. Friends too are eager to join the 97th New York Volunteers. Rosetta Edwards will have none of it. Rosetta may be a tomboy and her father’s farmhand, but she’s shared kisses and promises with Jeremiah. If he’s intent on soldiering, they’ll marry first. They wed and enjoy a few weeks of housekeeping in a cabin. It’s there that Jeremiah stumbles over Rosetta’s rock-hard stubbornness, a quality that later inspires her to chop her hair, dress in men’s clothing and become "Ross Stone." Rosetta passes a "you’ll do" physical and lands in Jeremiah’s unit, telling her stunned husband, "I signed on for this and there ain’t a thing I have ever been made to feel proud of in my life but the doing of a job that needs doing." Sketching a hardscrabble portrait of subsistence farm life, McCabe portrays Rosetta brilliantly—think True Grit’s Mattie Ross—as she narrates her story with energy, self-perception, courage and unremitting love for Jeremiah. McCabe’s thorough research lends verisimilitude to army life, all cook fires, salt pork, hardtack, thin blankets and marches into terror. McCabe’s descriptions of battle’s chaos and mayhem—"I just want to walk into that water, any water, and wash myself clean, my clothes and all, letting the blood and everything swirl away"—is reminiscent of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Rosetta echoes the period perfectly, playing off against gender expectations in letters home and in conversations with the company commander’s wife, the first to suspect her disguise, and with Will, a gentle, religious boy confused about his sexuality.
Based on often overlooked history, McCabe offers an extraordinary novel, one creating a memorable character through which we relive our national cataclysm.
A veteran editor of romance novels at Harlequin delivers a witty memoir of her history with romance.
Unlike the novels she edits, her real-life relationships have been messy and the happy endings elusive. Bloom’s story begins at a private high school in Connecticut, when she invited “Harlequin-hero gorgeous” Kent to a formal dance only to be ditched, then rescued by the popular, “fiendishly cute” Sam, who swirls her around the dance floor and insisted they have their picture taken. The photo becomes an important factor later in the story. From high school to college to teaching to a successful editing career, readers follow the author’s quest for Mr. Right. She cleverly juxtaposes the conventions of romantic novels and movies with the challenges of maintaining a real relationship, avoiding maudlin territory. She chronicles her series of at-first-exciting but ultimately deficient boyfriends, and her encounters inspire a humorous contrast of romantic archetypes—“The Secretive Hero (Who May Be Hiding Something Really Bad),” “Dangerous and Sexy Alpha Male Heroes That Are Supposed to Have a Heart of Gold,” “The Beta Hero (Who Cooks and Isn’t a Tool)”—to their real-life counterparts. This is classic girls'-night-out dishing. Though the men in her memoir, with the exception of one, are more typecast than fully formed, the deeper thread here is the idea of self-evaluation and betterment. “This is the part of any romance novel that is never included, the mundane details, the forging ahead, the suffering that doesn’t involve pining for a boy,” she writes. Despite insecurities, Bloom, a survivor of a violent crime, reveals an inner strength and resolve to carry on.
In the end, it’s not romance but something more elusive that Bloom finds: intimacy. Romance may wane as the quotidian details of cohabitation intrude on hearts and flowers, but that’s when true love begins.
Polished debut fiction, from Australian author Simsion, about a brilliant but emotionally challenged geneticist who develops a questionnaire to screen potential mates but finds love instead. The book won the 2012 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.
“I became aware of applause. It seemed natural. I had been living in the world of romantic comedy and this was the final scene. But it was real.” So Don Tillman, our perfectly imperfect narrator and protagonist, tells us. While he makes this observation near the end of the book, it comes as no surprise—this story plays the rom-com card from the first sentence. Don is challenged, almost robotic. He cannot understand social cues, barely feels emotion and can’t stand to be touched. Don’s best friends are Gene and Claudia, psychologists. Gene brought Don as a postdoc to the prestigious university where he is now an associate professor. Gene is a cad, a philanderer who chooses women based on nationality—he aims to sleep with a woman from every country. Claudia is tolerant until she’s not. Gene sends Rosie, a graduate student in his department, to Don as a joke, a ringer for the Wife Project. Finding her woefully unsuitable, Don agrees to help the beautiful but fragile Rosie learn the identity of her biological father. Pursuing this Father Project, Rosie and Don collide like particles in an atom smasher: hilarity, dismay and carbonated hormones ensue. The story lurches from one set piece of deadpan nudge-nudge, wink-wink humor to another: We laugh at, and with, Don as he tries to navigate our hopelessly emotional, nonliteral world, learning as he goes. Simsion can plot a story, set a scene, write a sentence, finesse a detail. A pity more popular fiction isn’t this well-written. If you liked Australian author Toni Jordan's Addition (2009), with its math-obsessed, quirky heroine, this book is for you.
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.
Attorney Phoebe Kruger is tasked with negotiating client Ian Dunn’s prison release, against his will, so he can rescue two kidnapped children, not realizing that doing so will set events in motion that will threaten dozens of lives—and a few hearts.
Considering his reputation as a former Navy SEAL and a suspected international jewel thief, Phoebe finds it a little odd that Ian is in jail for getting drunk and losing control of his car. But when an accident incapacitates Ian’s usual attorney, Phoebe is sent in his place. As a recent hire at the respected firm that represents Ian, she isn’t surprised when he’s hesitant to work with her. She is shocked, however, that he’s unwilling to accept a sweetheart deal designed by the government to get him out of jail scot-free in exchange for rescuing two kidnapped kids without causing an international incident. What neither Phoebe nor Martell—the attorney working on behalf of the government—knows is that Ian has his own agenda for being in prison, and if he leaves, for whatever reason, it will threaten the people closest to him. So once they spring him, Ian takes Phoebe hostage, then must rescue his brother and his family from the mob, assemble a team, connect with the FBI, work out a rescue plan with limited resources, deal with the devil in the form of an international assassin and work through long-standing family issues while navigating a sizzling-yet-unwelcome attraction to his new, unasked-for attorney. As outlandish as the plot sounds on paper, Brockmann effortlessly and expertly tosses hundreds of details into the air and juggles them with brilliance. The first in her Reluctant Heroes series, the novel will captivate readers with its intense, action-filled plot, alpha-and-a-half hero, and his smart, perfect-for-him heroine, as well as secondary characters who contribute pathos and humor.
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.
British novelist McKinlay (The View from Here, 2011) offers a not-quite love affair through letters and emails between a wildly successful American writer and a lonely, well-to-do British woman.
Long-divorced Eve Petworth has lived a reclusive if privileged life (driving a Bentley and never holding a job) in the English countryside. Shy and prone to anxiety attacks, she relinquished much of the control over her daughter Izzy’s upbringing to her overpowering mother, Virginia. With the grown-up Izzy now engaged to marry and Virginia recently deceased, Eve potters about her beautiful house gardening and cooking; her only friend is her housekeeper. Eve seems an unlikely fan of popular American author Jackson Cooper’s macho detective novels, but she appreciates the sensual way he writes about food and sends him a letter to say so. Approaching 50 and recently divorced for the second time, Jack is emotionally shaky and having trouble starting his next novel. Attracted to Eve’s straightforwardness and love of food, he responds to her note, and a correspondence begins. The letters and emails, full of culinary conversation and ruminations on the human condition, offer Eve and Jack both a respite as each faces his or her own separate crisis. Jack, who has a Filipino houseboy for his house in the Hamptons and whose best friend is an actor named Dex, seems a British fantasy of American literary hunkiness—readers are repeatedly assured how well-written his best-sellers are. Nevertheless, Jack, who, while corresponding with Eve, has begun a doomed romance with beautiful ice princess Adrienne, is beset by midlife self-doubt. Meanwhile, Eve faces difficult truths about her relationship with Izzy, who has reconnected with her father, Simon, who turns out not to be an evil ex after all. Early on, before their epistolary intimacy deepens, Jack suggests he and Eve meet for a culinary rendezvous in Paris, a romantic fantasy that may or may not come to fruition.
While mousy Eve and sensitive Marlborough Man Jack never quite grab the reader’s imagination, McKinlay wisely eschews easy romantic clichés.
In this scintillating sequel to Starstruck (2013), the stakes are higher, the fights are cattier, and the drama soars sky-high.
Margo Sterling, nee Margaret Frobisher, a former Pasadena society girl, seems to now have it all: good looks, a promising acting career and the handsome Dane Forrest on her arm. When her studio orchestrates impending nuptials between them, Margo must decide if she will concede to an illusory life or have a real one. As her star falters, Dane’s rises. Meanwhile, tired of her controlling mother, Gabby Preston wants to shed her persona as the sweet-faced child star with sausage curls. Fueled by this determination and a dangerous regimen of pills and alcohol, she takes up with bad-boy musician Eddie Sharp. And in yet another plot thread, leaving her life at the brothel behind, Amanda Farraday is determined to make it in Hollywood. However, when her studio contract is terminated and her beau, Harry Gordon, leaves her after discovering her previous line of work, she makes a rash decision that sets off a chain of events that affects all three girls. Their interwoven narratives of Hollywood in the 1930s have more twists and turns than Mulholland Drive. Secrets abound, and enough is held back to ensure that the next volume will have plenty left to reveal.
This sizzling sequel definitely delivers the goods: think Valley of the Dolls meets Gossip Girl.
(Historical fiction. 14 & up)