Sarah Waters is a terrific writer whom I sometimes think of as a contemporary Dickens. Her first novel, Fingersmith, was about a group of pickpockets with an engaging cast of characters and their adventures. After three others, set in different periods, now comes The Paying Guests. It takes place in the early 1920s in England and concerns a mother and adult daughter who have turned part of their house into an apartment to make money now that they are nearly destitute following the husband’s death. A rather off-beat couple moves in, and Frances becomes friendly with Lillian. Soon their friendship blossoms into a secret love affair. Eventually there is a murder and a trial, providing a nail biter.
Euphoria by Lily KingA gorgeously written novel based loosely on the experiences of three real anthropologists-- Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Reo Fortune—when they were together for a few months in 1933 on the Sepic River of “what was then called the Territory of New Guinea” (author’s acknowledgments). King borrows from their lives but recounts a different tale. Sensual, erotic, raw, visceral and filled with local characters, rituals, desires and passions, the novel stuns with its evocation of a completely foreign world. The interplay of the three characters is dangerous, nuanced, complex, enthralling.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
A slim little novel somewhat reminiscent of Saturday in that it centers on one protagonist, this time a 59-year-old female judge in London, and much of it takes place on one day. The novel concerns the case of a 17-year-old Jehovah Witness with leukemia who is refusing a necessary life saving blood transfusion, and his parents are also refusing to give the hospital permission because it goes against their religion. Fiona Maye is in the midst of a crisis in her marriage and tries not to let that color her decision. Gripping, beautifully written, provocative.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
A fascinating novel about the relationship between two half-sisters and their lives during the 1940s. Bloom writes with no wasted words and with many phrases you want to copy, but you are propelled forward by the plot. Rich minor characters too. Iris is the more outgoing, the extrovert, and Eva, forever loyal, is quieter but very smart. The characters are firmly embedded in the history of their time, and real world events are vividly revealed. I should have read it more slowly to savor it more completely.
Florence Gordon by Brian Morton
An amazing achievement for a male writer, this wonderful novel is about a feisty 75-year-old feminist who is often blunt, even rude to people. She’s writing her memoir which is really a history of the latest phase of the women’s movement. She is bothered by her left foot which sometimes drags or moves without her controlling it. After a fall and a sprained ankle, she gets a cane. Eventually she is diagnosed with ALS, something she keeps secret. Her granddaughter, Emily, realizes Florence is ill but respects her and says nothing. The two have a lovely relationship. Florence is a delightful, if difficult, woman.
Now in paperback:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu, beautiful, self-assured, departs for America to study. She has many ups and downs, all the while feeling the weight of something entirely new to her: race. Obinze, quiet and thoughtful, had hoped to join her but post 9/11 America will not let him in. Years later Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of a blog about race in the U.S. When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, the two face problems. Bittersweet, but with much humor, this is a richly told story.
The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P.S. Duffy
Here’s a WWI novel that belongs right up there with Birdsong and A Very Long Engagement. Angus MacGrath signs up in 1917 to serve as a cartographer in hopes of finding his brother-in-law, Ebbin Hant, who has been reported missing in action. Instead of a safe location drawing maps, Angus is sent to the front in France and becomes involved in the Battle for Vimy Ridge. Accounts of battles and trench warfare are graphic. Yet the writing is often beautiful. Chapters alternate with ones of Angus’s young son, Simon Peter, at home in Snag Harbor, Nova Scotia. A poignant father-son tale also.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Here is an inviting, long, old-fashioned novel, the kind to curl up with by the fire and just immerse yourself in. I hesitated about reading it as I had avoided Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love because I thought it sounded too self-indulgent. But this is an amazing achievement, the product of exhaustive and meticulous research and gifted story telling. We read about Alma Whitman, born in 1800 and living into her 80s. She is a very bright child who becomes a brilliant botanist. Yes, there’s a lot about botany, but there’s also Alma’s compelling life story, including all the complex people surrounding her.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Eilis, a young woman in a small town in Ireland, can’t find a good job and is working in a grocery store for the nasty Miss Kelly. Eilis lives with her widowed mother and Rose, an attractive and accomplished older sister with a good job. Father Flood tells Eilis he can get her a good position in Brooklyn, and she can live with a Mrs. Kehoe, who takes in Irish female boarders. After experiencing seasickness on the ocean voyage and homesickness when she arrives in America, Eilis meets Tony, a young Italian man at a dance. He falls for her, and Eilis becomes comfortable with him. Then she Is called back to Ireland, and we read on to find out if she’ll return to Tony. Toibin captures the immigrant experience beautifully.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
A biting satire on American culture. A group called Bravo was caught on film by Fox TV saving some troops in Iraq. The government has brought Bravo back to the U.S. for a victory tour culminating in the halftime festivities at the Dallas Cowboys football game on Thanksgiving Day. Fountain captures the language, often vulgar, of the young men, whose spokesman is 19-year-old Billy Lynn. But it is the mindless gushing of the civilians who praise the young men, and it is the obscenity of the whole football culture that are so strong. An amazing tour de force.
Other noteworthy reads:
Some Luck by Jane Smiley, the first novel in a hundred year trilogy, from 1920 to 2020 about a family in Iowa.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri covers generations of an Indian family, moving from Calcutta to Rhode Island to California and even Ireland, and spanning the years from 1960 to the present.
The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec is a novel that tells the life story of Adele, the opinionated and outspoken widow of a famous, real mathematician who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – a huge novel set primarily in 1866 in a small town in New Zealand that involves the 12 signs of the Zodiac and how they apply to the 12 main male protagonists.
Some good mysteries:
The Reckoning by Rennie Airth, the latest from one of the great British mystery writers.
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), the very satisfying sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling.
The Long Way Home by Louise Penny, in which the beloved and inimitable Armand Gamache, though retired, helps to solve another mystery.
The Secret Place by Tana French – another about the Dublin Murder Squad involving a murder on the grounds of a girls’ posh boarding school outside of Dublin.
Four good nonfiction:
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir by Penelope Lively.