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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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Katherine Parr: The Sixth Wife

Alison Weir. Ballantine, $28.99 (544p) ISBN 978-1-101-96663-1

Weir’s final book in the Six Tudor Queens series (after Katheryn Howard: The Scandalous Queen) is an engaging and deeply researched take on Henry VIII’s final wife, Katherine Parr. Katherine, the highly educated and beautiful daughter of high-ranking courtiers, marries heir Edward Burgh at 16. Marital relations are scarce and awkward, and Weir suggests Edward is gay. After Edward’s death, Katherine marries widower John Latimer, twice her age. As John lays dying, Katherine and Thomas Seymour fall in love and secretly pledge to marry; meanwhile, Henry VIII asks for Katherine’s hand, having recently executed Katheryn Howard. With anti-reformist religious fervor rising and heretic hunter Bishop Gardiner burning suspects at the stake, Katherine accepts Henry, hoping to sway him toward religious reforms. Katherine is pious; she openly hosts religious debates in her chambers, but is a secret reformist, wishing to practice without Catholic observances, and later uncovers Gardiner’s plot to arrest her for heresy. Weir brings her expertise of the Tudor era to bear with rich detail and historical perspective on politics and religion, and the many intelligent conversations between Katherine and Henry VIII add to the charm. With a mercurial, captivating king as hook, Weir serves up a sharp and lucid blend of grim fact and stylish fiction. Agent: Julian Alexander, the Soho Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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China: The Novel

Edward Rutherfurd. Doubleday, $35 (800p) ISBN 978-0-385538-93-0

Rutherfurd’s immersive if uneven epic (after Paris: The Novel) focuses on the development of China’s relationship with the West. He begins in 1839, on the eve of what became known as the Opium War. British traders have been profiting from selling the drug to the Chinese, and Lord Lin, a righteous government minister, vows to stamp out the lucrative trade, by force if necessary, a tack that prompts the British to showcase their naval superiority. Rutherfurd carries the story forward through the early 20th century, ending it after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and the untimely death of a Chinese emperor. The conflicts are illuminated via a large cast, including Lin’s young assistant, Jiang Shi-Rong; Nio, a pirate who shifts his alliances out of expediency; the unimaginatively named Englishman John Trader, whose fortune hinges on the uninterrupted flow of opium from India into China; and Lacquer Nail, a father and husband who becomes a palace eunuch to support his family, a trade Rutherfurd illuminates with somewhat expositional dialogue. The earlier sections are more engaging than the exhausting second half, and the balance between Asian and Occidental characters may disappoint some who’d hoped, from the title, that the focus would be on the Chinese. Nonetheless, readers unfamiliar with the history will learn something from this action-packed saga. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Blackmailer’s Guide to Love

Marian Thurm. Delphinium, $26.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-953002-00-6

The sparkling latest from Thurm (Today Is Not Your Day) looks back on the heyday of glossy magazine publishing. In 1978, 25-year-old Mel Fleischer, is working at an unnamed magazine as an assistant to cranky literary editor Austin Bloch. When Mel isn’t making copies or rejecting submissions from the slush pile, she’s writing and submitting her own short stories, one of which, to her surprise, is accepted by the New Yorker. Mel is married to supportive if not entirely reliable therapist Charlie, and the story of one of his clients, Julia Myerson, a PhD student with a failed marriage and dried-up teaching position, is chronicled in a parallel narrative. When the relationship between Charlie and Julia starts to slip out of professional bounds, it threatens to affect the bond between Mel and Charlie. Those familiar with Thurm’s writing career will notice significant parallels, which gives the novel a bouncy roman à clef charm. While the characters’ emotions often run high, such as when Mel meets the New Yorker’s editor (“The words love at first sight, sort of, are what come to her; but really it’s more a profound awe and reverence”), for the most part Thurm mellows them out with a detached distance. This will please those looking to feed their nostalgia for a bygone era. Agent: Robin Rue, Writers House. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Soulmate Equation

Christina Lauren. Gallery, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-1-982123-96-3

Lauren (The Unhoneymooners) delivers a charming romance sparked by a DNA match. Freelance statistician and single mother Jess Davis, 29, gets roped into touring the San Diego offices of DNA-based compatibility dating service GeneticAlly with her romance author friend. Despite her faith in numbers, she is deeply suspicious that a DNA match would lead to love and is turned off by the aloof founder, 35-year-old geneticist River Peña. But after a stressful day of work meetings and loneliness, Jess sends in a sample on a lark and surprisingly receives GeneticAlly’s highest ever score: a 98% compatibility with River himself. With an IPO pending for GeneticAlly, the company offers Jess $30,000 to date River in exchange for the publicity. Their attraction is undeniable, and they bond by geeking out on stats, but the media storm and need to explain things to her seven-year-old daughter nearly overwhelm Jess. River remains steadfast throughout, even after uncovering some shady dealings at GeneticAlly. Lauren creates tension and feel-good moments without making the plot too predictable. This is a sweet treat. Agent: Holly Root, Root Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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V for Victory

Lissa Evans. Harper, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-305983-2

A middle-aged London woman takes in a 14-year-old boy during WWII in Evans’s beguiling sequel to Crooked Heart. In 1944, Vee Sedge continues living as Margery Overs, aunt of Noel Bostock, to maintain custody of Noel and others abandoned during the war. After Vee sees a man fatally struck by a van, she is called to testify in court, where she maintains her ruse as Margery, who is deceased, and recalls her fear when previously appearing before a magistrate’s court for alleged theft. As the bombing of London continues, meanwhile, Air Raid Precautions Warden Winnie Crowther works tirelessly as she ponders her future after the war and hopes her husband, Emlyn, returns from a POW camp. After Vee is blackmailed by someone threatening to expose her fraud, she reveals the details of the blackmailing to Noel, who has a secret of his own, and the bond between them grows stronger. A host of quirky characters adds levity to the frequent deadly bombing raids as the stories of Vee, Noel, and the Crowthers intersect. Evans’s down-to-earth tale will hook readers from the first page. Agent: Georgia Garrett, RCW Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Among the Hedges

Sara Mesa, trans. from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Open Letter, $14.95 trade paper (140p) ISBN 978-1-948830-39-3

Set primarily within a city park, the engrossing latest from Mesa (Four by Four) charts the budding friendship between a 13-year-old girl and an unemployed 50-something man, who first meet when he chances upon her hiding behind a hedge to avoid being caught for skipping school. They strike up a conversation, and the next morning, he returns to their hideout. Days turn to weeks as they devise nicknames for each other—“Soon” (asked her age, she says, “I’ll be fourteen soon”) and “Old Man”—and he teaches her about his love of birds and the music of Nina Simone. Soon notices Old Man’s short temper and wonders how he can afford to spend so much time in the park. Yet she cannot help being drawn to him and begins fabricating stories about him in her diary (“she intuits that he is harmless, but if she wants to get somewhere with this, she has to imagine him as dangerous”). Mesa writes in brief bursts throughout, carefully avoiding formulaic plot developments as her characters spend more time together. The consequences of their encounters unfold in an ingenious final act set one year later, which is both unsettling and touching. This is difficult to put down. Agent: Andrea Montejo, Indent. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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