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A Theater for Dreamers

Polly Samson. Algonquin, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-64375-149-8

Writer and Pink Floyd lyricist Samson’s perceptive latest (after The Kindness) dissects the 1960s expat community on the Greek island of Hydra. Narrator Erica, 18, leaves drab 1960 London with her boyfriend and brother, looking for sun and a cheap place to make art. They choose Hydra because Australian writer Charmian Clift, an old friend of Erica’s recently deceased mother, is living there. The welcoming Charmian and her husband, fellow writer George Johnson, are the epicenter of the community, and soon Erica knows everyone, including newly arrived songwriter Leonard Cohen and his beautiful lover, Marianne Ihlen. Samson brings off the scenes of drunken philosophizing, arguing, and gossiping with distinct, intimate credibility. Hydra is beautiful and the company glamorous, but the story feels less escapist than sad and gloomy, as the women cook while the men write, drink, and complain about writing. Cohen is the most famous character, but the book’s real star is Charmian, who tries to find time to write while coping with an ill and jealous husband and mothering her own children and Erica. The Cohen apocrypha will certainly interest his fans, but Samson’s greatest accomplishment is the multifaceted portrait of Charmian. The attention Samson pays to since-overlooked Charmian in this nuanced portrait may put the Australian writer back on the map. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Seed Keeper

Diane Wilson. Milkweed, $16 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-57131-137-5

Wilson’s deeply moving debut novel (after the nonfiction narrative Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life) unfurls the complex story of Rosalie Iron Wing and her search for connection to her family, her people, and the land. The novel opens with the voice of the Dakota people’s seeds, passed down through generations (“We hold time in this space, we hold a thread to infinity that reaches all the way to the stars”). Rosalie’s sole friend as a teen, Gaby Makepeace, is a strong young woman whose auntie teaches Rosalie about the bonds shared by Dakota women. At 18, pregnant and married to John, a white man, Rosalie tries to make a life for herself on John’s farm, whose family founded it on land stolen from her ancestors, and whose inorganic farming practices alienate Rosalie from anti-GMO activist Gaby. Decades later, after John dies from cancer, Rosalie returns to her father’s cabin where she grew up. While struggling to survive through a brutal winter, Rosalie delves into stories of her family’s painful past, often shaped by dehumanizing interventions from the U.S. government. Wilson offers finely wrought descriptions of the natural world, as the voice of the seeds provides connective threads to the stories of her people. This powerful work achieves a deep resonance often lacking from activist novels, and makes a powerful statement along the way. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The King of Infinite Space

Lyndsay Faye. Putnam, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-0-525-53589-8

Faye (The Paragon Hotel), who’s written Sherlock Holmes pastiches and historical mysteries, as well as reimagined Jane Eyre as a serial killer, further showcases her versatility with this enthralling riff on Hamlet, set in contemporary New York City. Twenty years after a fire claiming the life of an unidentified victim devastated the New World’s Stage Theatre, its owner, Jackson Dane, dies unexpectedly. Dane posthumously reveals the truth behind his demise in a medium more appropriate to the 21st century: video, having left behind a recording for his son, Benjamin. In it, Dane voices his fears that someone is trying to kill him and points the finger at his brother, Claude, who marries Dane’s widow, Trudy, soon after Dane’s death. Benjamin searches for the truth, aided by his friend and lover, Horatio Patel, and his ex-fiancee, Lia Brahms, whose father, Paul, had run the New World’s Stage. Shakespeare devotees will be impressed at the variations Faye introduces to the play’s plotline, and Faye’s considerable descriptive gifts are on ample display (a sunrise is depicted as having “the palette of an eighties movie where the girl remakes herself by taking her glasses off”). Fans and newcomers alike will delight in Faye’s remarkable achievement. Agent: Erin Malone, WME. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Great Circle

Maggie Shipstead. Knopf, $28.95 (608p) ISBN 978-0-525-65697-5

Shipstead (Seating Arrangements) returns with a breathtaking epic of a female aviator. In 1914, infant twins Marian and Jamie Graves are sent to their dissolute uncle in Montana after their mother dies. There, a married pair of barnstormers inspires 12-year-old Marian, who feels “only lightness” as a passenger during a roll, loop, and nosedive. As a teen trucking hootch during Prohibition, Marian makes a delivery to a brothel, where she meets bootlegger Barclay Macqueen, who sponsors her interest in flying. Later Barclay traps her in a disastrous marriage, and she flees to become a bush pilot in Alaska. Her subsequent exploits are thrillingly and perceptively chronicled: during WWII, she ferries Spitfires for the RAF, and in 1949 embarks on a fateful pole-to-pole circumnavigation of the globe, which leads to a crash in Antarctica, after which she is assumed to have died. Shipstead interweaves stories of Jamie, who becomes an artist and draws battle scenes during WWII, and of her wartime lover, Ruth, with asides about historic aviators (many of them women), and convincingly conveys her characters’ yearning for connection, freedom, and purpose. In a present-day narrative, film star Hadley Baxter, herself orphaned by a plane crash, is cast to portray Marian, an ambitious move for Hadley after having been known for her role in a Twilight-esque fantasy series. Shipstead manages to portray both Marian’s and Hadley’s expanded sense of consciousness as they push the boundaries inscribed around them—Marian’s through flight and Hadley’s through creative inspiration (a particularly colorful scene has her zooming on psychedelic mushrooms). This is a stunning feat. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Courage, My Love

Kristin Beck. Berkley, $17 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-10156-8

Beck debuts with a promising dive into the lives of two Italian women who resisted the Nazi occupation of Rome. Chapters alternate between Francesca, a polio survivor who joins the resistance and ascends to its highest ranks after German soldiers kidnap her fiancé, and Lucia, a young mother whose anti-Fascist husband left her under mysterious circumstances five years before. Lucia must first overcome her family’s Fascist leanings, and finds the courage to join the resistance following the capture and killing of a Jewish friend. Though Francesca and Lucia are strangers at first, they find common ground in the resistance. Driven by this strength, they become spies and assassins, fueled by their shared belief that “anger alone isn’t enough... we have to act.” Together, they organize a band within the resistance that is instrumental to freeing Rome from its German captors. Unfortunately, the backdrop of war often stands in for deeper characterization, with the characters serving as symbols of feminist grit and determination rather than rounded wholes. It’s certainly rousing, but it doesn’t rise to the top ranks of the current trend of WWII fiction featuring strong women protagonists. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Mothers

Genevieve Gannon. Morrow, $16.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-063-04206-3

The riveting latest from Gannon (Chasing Chris Campbell) centers on a family drama inspired by a real-life in vitro fertilization mix-up. Grace and Dan Arden are in their mid-40s and about to embark on their seventh round of IVF. Facing emotional burnout, Grace is starting to suffer stress-related complications at her job. Meanwhile, Priya and Nick Archer have finally saved enough money to begin the IVF process after years of trying to conceive. But soon after starting the program, Priya discovers Nick has been sexting with women he meets online. As both Grace and Priya decide to forge ahead with embryo implantation, their appointments are scheduled for the same day at the same clinic. While things go smoothly for Grace, Priya’s treatments prove unsuccessful, and after Grace gives birth to a baby boy whose skin color is darker than either parent, she and Dan suspect the wrong embryo had been implanted yet decide to fight to keep their son even though he is biologically Priya’s. Priya, faced with the possibility other parents could raise her biological son, takes every legal recourse to gain custody of the boy. Gannon delivers an emotional punch with well-developed characters and an unapologetic look at infertility, marital struggles, and the parental rights issues that have arisen due to the prevalence of fertility treatment options. This heart-wrenching novel is hard to put down. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Arcadia

Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam, trans. from the French by Ruth Diver. Seven Stories, $19.95 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-1-64421-053-6

French writer Bayamack-Tam’s rich English-language debut chronicles the coming-of-age adventures of a teenage girl who lives in a commune with her family. After moving from Paris, Farah adjusts to new life at Liberty House, a technology-free space where the harmonious “love conquers all” credo is echoed among the followers and promoted by their spiritual guru, Arcady. Farah and her family are de-baptized and renamed upon entering the community, and remain carefully attuned to Arcady’s daily exegesis and impassioned sermons. Farah is a bulky, awkward adolescent who soon discovers she is intersex and grapples with conflicting male and female impulses. Meanwhile, she is coddled by an increasingly creepy Arcady, who passionately promises her unconditional acceptance and unbridled sex with him once she’s old enough. Eventually, Farah learns to embrace and treasure the “androgynous creature” her body has become, particularly after a migrant integrates himself into the community and promotes independence among Arcady’s followers. While the supporting characters are a bit too thinly drawn, Bayamack-Tam builds out the family’s swift acclimation to Liberty House with clever detail and flashes of humor, as when Farah’s nudist grandmother frolics on the commune’s grounds and her mother claims to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. It all adds up to an engrossing and provocative character study. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Last Summer at the Golden Hotel

Elyssa Friedland. Berkley, $16 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-593-19972-5

Friedland (The Floating Feldmans) returns with a well-crafted family dramedy centered on a storied Borscht Belt resort, now in its twilight years. The two families who co-own the Golden Hotel have enjoyed a close, if at times complicated, relationship since its founding in 1960 (matriarchs Fanny Weingold and Louise Goldman have never gotten along, and their families have kept their distance after a disastrous Fourth of July barbecue 10 years earlier). With business declining, the families reunite at the resort to consider a sale. Fancy Westchester mom Aimee Goldman-Glasser arrives with her wayward son and uptight daughter, but not her husband, a doctor who was recently arrested for overprescribing Oxycontin. Brian Weingold, a son of the other founding partner, is now the Golden’s CEO. Once considered the heartthrob of the Catskills, Brian is somewhat adrift after a nasty divorce. A long-smoldering attraction between Aimee and Brian threatens to erupt, and a prospective developer insinuates that relations between the resort’s original founding couples may not have been what they seemed, while Brian’s influencer niece tries to market the hotel to millennials. Friedland brings laughs and nuance to the family foibles, and demonstrates a wide range in her convincing narration from the many points of view. Breezy and charming, this is great fun. Agent: Stefanie Lieberman, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Good Company

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Ecco, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-287600-3

Sweeney’s disappointing latest (after The Nest) revolves around two New York City theater transplants and their daughter and friends in Los Angeles. When musical theater–turned–voiceover actor Flora Mancini discovers her husband Julian Fletcher’s wedding ring in their garage, she suspects something is awry: he had told her he lost it swimming in a pond. A meandering set of backstories and present-day happenings ensues, involving the couple’s 18-year-old daughter, Ruby, and their best friends: Margot Letta, an actor on a television drama, and her husband, David Pearlman, a former cardiac surgeon whose practice was upended when he had a stroke. In chapters alternating between the characters’ points of view, Sweeney unravels the love, pain, and disappointment between them as Flora seeks to discover why Julian lied about the wedding ring, Margot’s TV role comes to a close and she reckons with her part in the ring mystery, and Ruby travels to Spain with a boyfriend before starting college. While the deliciously flawed characters are well developed, the lackluster climax and drawn-out therapy scenes involving Flora and Julian are less successful. In the end, readers will long for more drama in a story of people whose lives are steeped in it. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Double Blind

Edward St. Aubyn. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-374-90275-9

St. Aubyn (the Patrick Melrose novels) expounds on epigenetics, rewilding, art, neuroscience, and philosophy in this sublime character-driven novel. With his usual elegant prose, St. Aubyn follows three friends—Francis, Olivia, and Lucy—through a transformative year. Naturalist Francis meets biologist Olivia at a “megafauna” conference in Oxford and feels an instant “subterranean attraction.” He later anxiously awaits her visit to the Sussex estate he has vowed to reclaim with its deer, pigs, cattle, and ponies, envisioning an “English savannah.” Meanwhile, Olivia anticipates Lucy’s arrival from New York to London, where she’s taken a job with a venture capital firm headed by the scheming Hunter Sterling. Lucy’s also blindsided by unexplainable muscle spasms that lead to the “high tech phrenology” of a graphically detailed brain biopsy. While she is recovering with Francis and Olivia in Sussex, Hunter helicopters in with caviar, blinis, and vodka. Add the sudden, unexpected appearance of 34-year-old schizophrenic Sebastian Tanner, whose true identity threatens to square the friends’ already fraught triangle and lends an element of mystery. The four embark on a pharmacologically fueled journey from England to Cap d’Antibes to Big Sur, leading to a surprising and enthralling moral and ethical dilemma. St. Aubyn brings off a seemingly effortless and provocative examination of the mind and its refractions. This one’s not to be missed. (June)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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