This week: Annie Proulx's epic masterpiece, Emma Cline's big debut, and more.
A middle-aged woman looks back on her experience with a California cult reminiscent of the Manson Family in Cline’s provocative, wonderfully written debut. Fourteen years old in the summer of 1969, Evie Boyd enjoys financial privilege and few parental restrictions. Yet she’s painfully aware that she is fascinated by girls, awkward with boys, and overlooked by her divorced parents, who are preoccupied with their own relationships. When Evie meets “raunchy and careless” Suzanne Parker, she finds in the 19-year-old grifter an assurance she herself lacks. Suzanne lives at a derelict ranch with the followers of charismatic failed musician Russell Hadrick, who extols selflessness and sexual freedom. Soon, Evie—grateful for Russell’s attention, the sense of family the group offers, and Suzanne’s seductive presence—is swept into their chaotic existence. As the mood at the ranch turns dark, her choices become riskier. The novel’s title is apt: Cline is especially perceptive about the emulation and competition, the longing and loss, that connect her novel’s women and their difficult, sometimes destructive passages to adulthood.
Children’s book author Cooper (Train) takes the grimmest of subject matters—learning that your young daughter has cancer—and turns it into a poignant but never melodramatic musing on parenting, love, and risks in this slim memoir that packs a mighty punch. The lives of Cooper and his wife, Elise, suddenly shift into warp speed when Cooper feels a lump on four-year-old Zoë’s side when she’s sitting on his lap during a Cubs game. It’s a pediatric kidney cancer called Wilms’s tumor, a so-called “good cancer.” But after surgery, the doctors tell Cooper and Elise that Zoë’s is stage three. Twenty-two weeks of chemo follow, during which the stoic Zoë bonds with nurses, stuffed tiger clutched in her hand, while Cooper spins in a silent rage that bursts forth at inopportune moments. Cooper, Elise, Zoë, and youngest daughter Mia move from Chicago to New York and develop a ritual around Zoë, now in kindergarten, going for treatment every Friday. Cooper tells of the blanket of normalcy that descends, but still, “every week has a Friday.” Zoë is on the mend, and post-treatment scans show no recurrence, yet Cooper still struggles to reconcile the fierce love he feels for his daughter, his need to protect her, and the powerlessness he feels in the face of cancer.
Deón’s powerful debut is a moving, mystical family saga set over the course of 25 years in the deep South. The ghost of Naomi, a woman who escaped slavery, narrates, beginning with her own gruesome murder moments after she delivers her blond-haired baby, Josie. Careening back and forth through time, Naomi first recounts her childhood flight after the grisly murders of her mother and the man who enslaved them. The story lurches from Naomi’s youth in a Georgia brothel to Josie’s childhood in an Alabama plantation house, where she’s been taken in by Annie Graham, a barren white woman. Annie lives with her pedophilic, lecherous brother, George, who preys on Josie when she’s at her most vulnerable. Naomi relives falling in love with a white gambler and becoming pregnant with his child. As a ghost, she hovers over Josie as she, too, falls in love, with the son of Annie’s onetime house slave, Sissy. Naomi must watch helplessly as Josie gives birth to twins whose father leaves not once but twice to fight for their freedom. The book provides penetrating insight into how confusing, violent, and treacherous life remained in the South after the Emancipation Proclamation, and how little life improved for freed slaves, even after the war.
One minute, counselor-in-training Lizzie Stoller is teaching archery to a group of campers. The next, she is incapacitated by pain. Thus begins Lizzie’s ordeal, fighting a life-threatening disease. In her first YA novel, adult author Gilmore (The Mothers) movingly expresses a teen’s changing perspective, highlighting a series of turning points during a few months of Lizzie’s 16th year. During her illness, eventually diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, Lizzie’s separation from the world leaves her lonely and afraid. When she finally arrives home from the hospital exhausted and vulnerable, she feels disconnected from her old life and friends. More real to her are cherished moments she spent with Connor, a hospital volunteer who experienced a trauma of his own. Lizzie can’t let go of her memories of their intimate conversations, but Connor’s instability may prevent them from having a relationship. Reading this dramatic romance is both a painful and mesmerizing experience. The reward comes in Lizzie’s recognition of her own strength and resilience as her focus shifts from what she can’t do to what she can still accomplish.
Hanawalt, the author of My Dirty Dumb Eyes and designer for the animated series Bojack Horseman, turns her cartooning eye toward food and foodie culture—among other topics—in her second collection. With essays on Vegas buffets, Argentinian cuisine, and swimming with otters (many originally published in Lucky Peach magazine), Hanawalt takes a kebab skewer to the pomposity that’s grown up around food and dining. The cartoons evoke an idiosyncratic absurdity akin to Roz Chast’s work (“Baking tip: keep your sweet tooth away from your salt molar”). Of particular interest is Hanawalt’s account of observing Wylie Dufresne, which approaches the chef and his work not from a pedestal of haughty criticism or with the kowtowing awe that pervades “cheflebrities,” but simply as a woman who loves food of all kinds. New Yorkers will get a special kick out of the detailed breakdown of the city’s sidewalk cuisine, but Hanawalt’s self-aware humor (with a side order of deeply affecting personal stories) will whet anyone’s appetite.
Racial tensions and class strife provide the underlying conflict in this tense mystery, first in the Alternate Detective series, set in an industrialized fantasy city reminiscent of Victorian-era South Africa. Sixteen-year-old Ang Sutonga works as a “steeplejack,” cleaning and maintaining Bar-Selehm’s many towers and spires. When her new apprentice is murdered, no one seems to care. Then a secret government organization hires Ang to find the killer, believing the death is linked to more important matters, such as the theft of the city’s fabled Beacon—an impossibly valuable piece of luxorite, the glowing mineral that forms the backbone of the city’s economy. As Ang delves into the mystery, she discovers treachery, danger, and evidence of a far-reaching conspiracy that could throw the region into chaos. Hartley’s (the Darwen Arkwright series) story is a thought-provoking blend of action and intrigue, with a competent and ethical heroine in Ang and a fully imagined setting whose atmosphere and cultural cues also play important roles. The result is an unforgettable page-turner built on surprises and full of potential.
British writer Nicolson (The Great Silence: 1918–1920; Living in the Shadow of the Great War), skillfully recounts the journeys of the women in her family. She begins her chronicle in 1830 with the fascinating story of her great-great-grandmother, a famous dancer from the slums of Southern Spain, and takes readers on an intimate tour of her female relatives, explaining that for all the differences in personalities, time, and place, these individuals all share one thing: “We are all daughters.” Writing from a beach in the Hebrides, Nicolson concludes with her musings on how life will be different for her one-year old granddaughter. Nicolson had plenty of raw material from which to craft her remarkable story; many of her relatives wrote down their history. She is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson and the daughter of author Nigel Nicolson, probably the most recognizable of her family members for American readers. Even the less familiar relatives’ stories make for fascinating reading in this intimate and well-written family history.
Structured in 10 novella-length sections, this monumental achievement begins with two Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, who arrive in New France (now Canada) in 1693 to work for a local seigneur in exchange for land. The first section is about Sel, a born woodsman who fathers three children with Mari, a Mi’kmaq woman. The second follows Duquet, the wilier of the two, who runs away and, snatching up tracts of woodlands in the northeast, founds a timber company in Boston called Duke & Sons. The subsequent sections alternate between each man’s bloodline, tracing displacement, resettlement, and death, finishing in 2013. The descendants of Sel battle the erosion of Mi’kmaq culture (at the book’s end, their number dips below 1,500), often struggling to adapt as Europeans flood North America, while the Mi’kmaq drift and take labor jobs as they are uprooted. Meanwhile, Duquet’s descendants take up the family business. James Duke, Duquet’s great grandson whose “future flickered before him as a likely series of disappointments,” pushes west to find new sources of timber. And James’s daughter, the hungry and enterprising Lavinia, perhaps the book’s most memorable character, brings unprecedented growth during her time at the helm. Despite the length, nothing seems extraneous, and not once does the reader sense the story slipping from Proulx’s grasp, resulting in the kind of immersive reading experience that only comes along every few years.
Nonfiction author Reid (The Truth About Luck) fuses suspense with philosophy, psychology, and horror in his unsettling first novel set in an unspecified locale. When Jake takes his unnamed new girlfriend to meet his parents, he doesn’t realize she’s thinking of “ending things” (just what she might end is at first unclear). Dinner at the family farm proves awkward, reinforcing her doubts about their relationship. On their way home, the weather turns nasty and Jake pulls off the road at a darkened high school. He takes the keys and exits the car, but never returns, leaving his girlfriend little choice but to strike out after him. While the events preceding the couple’s separation have the air of a disquieting dream, those that follow are the stuff of nightmares. Stream-of-consciousness narration by Jake’s girlfriend adds to the story’s surreal quality, and occasional blocks of unattributed dialogue about an unspecified tragedy impart dread. Capped with an ending that will shock and chill, this twisty tale invites multiple readings.
Once again, Reinhardt (We Are the Goldens) shows a deep understanding of adolescent attitudes and emotions in this novel tracing 17-year-old River’s recovery from a broken heart. The day River’s girlfriend, Penny, breaks up with him, he feels stranded in more ways than one. Without Penny to give him a ride home, he walks the streets alone, and that’s how he discovers the sign advertising “a second chance.” Intrigued, River joins the Second Chance group’s meeting, thinking he has found kindred spirits, but it turns out that the group’s members are struggling with various addictions. Rather than leave, River pretends he has a drug problem, a mistake readers will recognize as the beginning of his downfall long before the lie creates a mess of trouble. More than preaching the virtue of honesty, the book focuses on River’s growing self-awareness, his coming to terms with his failed relationship, his too-passive nature, and how his father’s abandonment has affected him. Intelligent and ironic, the narrative resounds with honesty, even as River himself is quite successful at inventing little white lies.
Saldaña París’s first novel to be translated Stateside is a leisurely story of slacking off that’s nicely conveyed in a sharp, cynical tone. Rodrigo (“My level of empathy with human beings is near zero”), finds himself, through a misunderstanding, accidentally married to his museum coworker, Cecilia. But not even marriage can alter his deep-seated indifference (the height of his ambition is masturbating twice on Saturdays), and after an economic crisis forces him out of his job, he leaves Mexico City for the provincial Los Girasoles to stay with his mother. There, he meets his mother’s boyfriend, Marcelo, a “cretin with a Ph.D.” in philosophy, and with whom Rodrigo has more than a little in common. There are fascinating pieces to the narrative: most notably, a Bolaño-esque thread of an early 20th-century poet/boxer named Richard Foret who disappeared in the Gulf of Mexico and whom Marcelo is in Los Girasoles to study. It’s best to read this messy, shaggy picaresque for its ample page-by-page pleasures, which include devilishly clever syntax, a charming tendency to digress, and satisfying flashes of Rodrigo and Marcelo getting their act together.