In Sharma’s world, as in Leo Tolstoy’s, unhappy families continue to be unhappy in different ways.
In 1978, narrator Ajay’s father emigrates from Delhi to New York to take a job as a clerk in a government agency, and a year later, his family joins him. Ajay’s mother had been an economics teacher in India and must now adjust to lower career aspirations, while Ajay’s older brother Birju experiences some academic success in middle school and qualifies to attend the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Tragically, just before Birju is about to begin at his new high school, he has an accident—he hits his head in a pool and stays unconscious underwater for three minutes, leading to severe brain damage that lasts throughout his life. This accident changes the entire dynamic for the Mishra family. First, they have to determine how to take care of Birju, and they eventually decide to buy a new home and have live-in help, a situation made more feasible when the family gets a $1 million insurance settlement. But the father becomes an alcoholic, in part owing to the new stresses brought about by Birju’s medical needs, and the mother winds up taking a job in the garment industry for minor wages. Meanwhile, Ajay begins to feel some pressure to be the academic star, something he succeeds in by graduating first in his high school class—he eventually attends Princeton, studies economics and becomes an investment banker. Along the way, he becomes enamored with Ernest Hemingway and begins to write short stories about his family life in the reportorial and flat style of the author he so admires—a style Sharma also adheres to in the writing of his novel.
A moving story of displacement and of the inevitable adjustments one must make when life circumstances change.
In the sweltering fall of 1876, a San Francisco prostitute tracks a killer and searches for her stolen baby.
Donoghue returns here to the historical fiction genre in which she first made her international mark (Slammerkin, 2000, etc.), but she’s blended in the suspense craft she acquired writing her contemporary mega-seller Room (2010). Who fired the shotgun blasts that blew away Jenny Bonnet while her friend Blanche bent down to take off her boots? Blanche believes it was her lover Arthur or his sidekick, Ernest, who have been living on her earnings as a high-priced erotic dancer/whore. They weren’t happy when Jenny goaded Blanche into retrieving her 1-year-old son, P’tit, from the ghastly holding pen for unwanted children where Arthur dumped him while Blanche was ill. And Jenny is killed while Blanche is hiding out in the countryside with her after an ugly scene with Arthur and Ernest that led Blanche to flee their apartment without P’tit. The men blame Jenny for Blanche’s newfound, unwelcome independence, but there are plenty of other people in San Francisco who dislike the defiant, cross-dressing frog-catcher, who presents herself as an untamed free spirit. There’s far more to Jenny’s story, we learn, as Donoghue cuts between Blanche’s hunt for her son in mid-September and the events of August, when her collision with bicycle-riding Jenny led to their unlikely friendship. By the time the murderer is revealed, we understand why Jenny knows so much about abandoned children, and we’ve seen how Blanche has been changed by her hesitant commitment to motherhood. (Some of the book’s funniest, most touching moments depict her early struggles to care for “this terrible visitor,” her baby.) Donoghue’s vivid rendering of Gilded Age San Francisco is notable for her atmospheric use of popular songs and slang in Blanche’s native French, but the book’s emotional punch comes from its portrait of a woman growing into self-respect as she takes responsibility for the infant life she’s created.
More fine work from one of popular fiction’s most talented practitioners.
A bizarre case of identity theft forces a dentist to question his beliefs in this funny, thought-provoking return to form by Ferris (The Unnamed, 2010, etc.).
In 2011, Paul O’Rourke has a thriving practice on Manhattan’s Park Avenue and a throbbing sense that things could be a lot better. His nights are troubled by insomnia and a bed cooled by a recent breakup. His days feature patients who don’t floss and three staffers—including his ex—who unsettle him in their own curious ways. As the novel opens, Paul’s world quickly goes from bad to weird, and it’s clear that Ferris is back in the riff-rich, seriocomic territory of his first novel, Then We Came to the End (2007). A confirmed atheist who sustains a ritualistic devotion to the Boston Red Sox, Paul’s romances have exposed him to the tempting fervor and trappings of Catholicism and Judaism. Still, he resists fiercely when a website, a Facebook page and blogging comments mysteriously emerge in his name and he discovers that the man behind them fronts a quasi-Jewish sect founded on the value of doubt: "Behold, make thine heart hallowed by doubt; for God, if God, only God may know." With almost Pynchon-esque complexity, Ferris melds conspiracy and questions of faith in an entertaining way, although his irreverence and crudity in places may offend some readers. Full of life’s rough edges, the book resists a neat conclusion, favoring instead a simple scene that is comic perfection—an ending far sweeter than the Red Sox had that year.
Strangely astray in The Unnamed, Ferris is back on track here. Smart, sad, hilarious and eloquent, this shows a writer at the top of his game and surpassing the promise of his celebrated debut.
Three months after an avalanche killed her son, a single mother takes tentative steps toward healing in Hemmings’ (The Descendants, 2007, etc.) astute and sensitive examination of relationships, loss and grief.
Swamped in a vortex of survivor’s guilt and unanswered questions about 22-year-old Cully’s skiing accident near their Breckenridge, Colo., home, Sarah St. John finds no comfort returning to her job hosting a TV show for tourists. Her father, a retiree addicted to QVC, has taken up permanent residence in her home; her best friend, Suzanne, though supportive, has her own problems and sometimes voices unsympathetic and inappropriate thoughts (“Divorce is the death of a marriage”). Sarah fluctuates between paralyzing sorrow and intense anger. She questions her parenting skills and seethes when a well-meaning acquaintance tries to forge a link between Cully’s death and the skiing death of her own son years ago by suggesting they both died doing something they loved. Discomfited by a large amount of cash and baggies of marijuana she and Suzanne find while sorting through Cully’s belongings, Sarah tortures herself with thoughts that her son was perceived as a bad person and is then disconcerted to learn that he shared confidences with his father and grandfather that he didn’t share with her. When Kit, a young waitress, enters the picture and claims she and Cully had a relationship, Sarah is leery but offers her support and assistance. The journey they take to an event billed as a memorial (arranged by Suzanne’s daughter) is mutually beneficial as Sarah mulls a proposal from Kit and slowly awakens to the understanding that her grief and sense of loss are not exclusive. Heartache, she realizes, comes in different forms and depths and is expressed in a variety of ways. No matter what, though, pain is pain. Hemmings writes a piercing, empathetic story about parenthood and unfathomable heartbreak and manages to bring humor and hope to her characters.
Emotionally complex and relatable to all, it will be particularly understandable to those who’ve experienced the inexplicable, devastating loss of a loved one.
Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.
In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.
Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.
A tour de force of character, point of view and especially atmosphere, Prose's latest takes place in Paris from the late 1920s till the end of World War II.
The primary locus of action is the Chameleon Club, a cabaret where entertainment edges toward the kinky. Presiding most nights is Eva “Yvonne” Nagy, a Hungarian chanteuse and mistress of the revels. The name of the club is not strictly metaphorical, for Yvonne has a pet lizard, but the cabaret is also famous as a place where Le Tout-Paris can gather and cross-dress, and homosexual lovers can be entertained there with some degree of privacy. One of the most fascinating denizens of the club is Lou Villars, in her youth an astounding athlete and in her adulthood a dancer (with her lover Arlette) at the club and even later a race car driver and eventually a German spy in Paris during the Occupation. Villars and Arlette are the subjects of what becomes the era’s iconic photograph, one that gives the novel its title. This image is taken by Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, eventual lover (and later husband) of sexual athlete Suzanne Dunois. Tsenyi is also a protégé of Baroness Lily de Rossignol, former Hollywood actress, now married to the gay Baron de Rossignol, the fabulously wealthy owner of a French car manufacturing company. Within this multilayered web of characters, Prose manages to give almost every character a voice, ranging from Tsenyi’s eager letters home to his parents, excerpts from a putative biography of Lou Villars (supposedly written by Suzanne’s great-niece) entitled The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars, Lily de Rossignol’s memoirs and further reminiscences by Lionel Maine, Suzanne’s lover before she was “stolen away” by the photographer.
A brutally comic chronicle of high-end divorce told through letters, emails and a huge pile of legal memorandums. This is the first novel from Columbia Law School graduate Rieger.
Brilliant 29-year-old Sophie Diehl is an up-and-coming criminal defense lawyer in the prestigious firm of Traynor, Hand, Wyzanski in the fictional New England state of Narraganset. Mia Durkheim, nee Meiklejohn, the daughter of one of Traynor, Hand, Wyzanski's wealthiest clients, has been served divorce papers by her husband of 18 years, pediatric oncologist Daniel. After Sophie fills in for the firm’s vacationing divorce specialist, Fiona McGregor, to take Mia’s initial interview—transcript provided—Mia decides she wants Sophia to represent her. Sophie reluctantly accepts the civil case under pressure from managing partner David Greaves. The intimacies of Mia and Daniel’s marriage are laid bare largely through Mia and Sophie’s emails and Sophie’s detailed memos to David about the case’s progress. The couple’s skirmishes are comically vicious, while the issue of custody concerning their sensitive, precocious 10-year-old daughter deepens the marital drama. As Sophie gears up to battle the sleazy New York lawyer Daniel has hired, she also must contend with Fiona’s ruffled feathers and office politics involving ethnic, class and gender issues brought to light in a flurry of interoffice memos—shades of The Good Wife. Meanwhile, Sophie’s emails to her best friend chronicle a nonstarter romance and her complicated relationships with high-achieving, eccentric parents whose divorce still troubles Sophie. Rieger pulls out every legal document connected to the case, including witness affidavits, settlement offer breakdowns and legal invoices.
Extremely clever, especially the legal infighting; this book should prove hugely popular with the legal set as well as anyone who has ever witnessed a divorce in process.
A sharp set of stories, the author's debut, about U.S. soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their aftermaths, with violence and gallows humor dealt out in equal measure.
Klay is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, and the 12 stories reveal a deep understanding of the tedium, chaos and bloodshed of war, as well as the emotional disorientation that comes with returning home from it. But in the spirit of the best nonfiction writing about recent U.S. war vets (David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, for example), Klay eschews simple redemptive or tragic narrative arcs. The discomfiting “Bodies” is narrated by a Mortuary Affairs officer whose treatment of women back home is almost as equally coldhearted as he had to be when collecting remains, while “Prayer in the Furnace” is told from the perspective of a chaplain forced to confront a battalion that’s been bullied into a hyperviolent posture. Klay favors a clipped, dialogue-heavy style, and he’s skilled enough to use it for comic as well as dramatic effect. “OIF,” for instance, is a vignette that riffs on the military’s alphabet soup of acronyms and how they emotionally paper over war’s toll. (“And even though J-15 left his legs behind, at least he got CASEVAC’d to the SSTP and died on the table.”) The finest story in the collection, “Money as a Weapons System,” follows a Foreign Service Officer tasked with helping with reconstruction efforts in Iraq. His grand ambition to reopen a water treatment plant is slowly undone by incompetence, internecine squabbling and a congressman’s buddy who thinks there’s no problem in Iraq that teaching kids baseball won’t fix; Klay’s grasp of bureaucracy and bitter irony here rivals Joseph Heller and George Orwell. The narrators sound oddly similar throughout the book, as if the military snapped everybody into one world-wise voice. But it does make the bookfeel unusually cohesive for a debut collection.
Readers who found British author Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox (2011) an intellectual tour de force, but emotionally chilly, will be won over by this riveting, brilliant and emotionally rich retelling of “Snow White” set in 1950s New England.
Despite her name, Boy Novak is a 20-year-old young woman when she arrives in Flax Hill, Mass., in 1953. She has run away from New York’s Lower East Side because her abusive father, Frank, a rat catcher by trade who has refused to tell her anything about her never-present mother, has threatened to treat her like one of his rats. In Flax Hill, Boy makes actual friends, like beautiful, career-driven Mia, and begins a relationship with Arturo Whitman, a former history professor and widowed father. Now a jewelry maker, Arturo lives with his little daughter, Snow, in close proximity to his mother, intimidating social matriarch Olivia. Not sure she loves him, Boy marries Arturo (whose quiet goodness is increasingly endearing to the reader and Boy) largely because she loves Snow, a fair-haired beauty who charms everyone she meets. But when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, the Whitmans’ deepest secret is revealed—Arturo’s parents are actually light-skinned African-Americans passing as white. Faced with how others view the difference between the sisters and influenced by some combination of overpowering maternal protectiveness and bad postpartum depression, Boy sends 7-year-old Snow to live with Arturo’s dark-skinned sister, Clara, whom Olivia banished years ago. Growing up apart, Bird and Snow tell their versions of how Boy’s decision impacts their lives. Then a startling revelation about Boy’s own identity makes all three confront who they are individually and together.
Dense with fully realized characters, startling images, original observations and revelatory truths, this masterpiece engages the reader’s heart and mind as it captures both the complexities of racial and gender identity in the 20th century and the more intimate complexities of love in all its guises.