A husband addicted to amphetamines, a repressed sexpot wife, and a bedridden, depressive teenager are just a few of the characters we get to know on a deep level in Bullet Park. Known as the “Chekhov of the suburbs,” Cheever is the master of malaise who writes in disciplined, gorgeous prose.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
The first collection of stories by a genius of suburban misery, Carver’s pared-down narratives are perfectly structured snapshots of typical, often impoverished people trapped in painful lives. Tragically funny and fun to read, the focal point is always that moment right before the shit hits the fan. After you finish this one, head straight on to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral for more skillfully scripted madness.
A tired New Jersey father feels he may finally be reaching a life of domestic bliss, but then his 16-year-old politicized daughter makes a bomb and blows up a rural post office. Arguably Roth’s best work, American Pastoral is about the failure of the American Dream and the lies we tell to maintain it.
Pour yourself a drink because you’ll need it when coming face-to-face with Yates’ deluded but oh-so-recognizable characters. The Wheelers are a classic 1950s couple, perfect-looking on the outside but trapped inside a self-inflicted life of monotony and frustration. An instructive example of how not to be self-absorbed, Yates reminds his readers that beauty is merely the promise of happiness, not necessarily the reality.
The Amateur Marriage
Michael Anton and Pauline Barclay, one of the “young marrieds of the war years” are an unmatched Baltimore couple in the 1940s. The story of their dissolving marital bond spans three generations, during which readers will find themselves asking what it means to be a good person. As Tyler once said in an interview with The Guardian, “I am fascinated by how families work, endurance, how do we get through life?” Hopefully not the way Michael and Pauline do.
A Thousand Acres
Larry Cook, an aging Iowa farmer, decides to retire and, in a move he considers to be generous beyond measure, leaves the family homestead to his three grown daughters. When the youngest, a lawyer in Des Moines, suggests that taking care of the family farm isn’t exactly in her cards, her father decides to cut her off completely. A midwestern King Lear story, Smiley’s novel about the perils of family and property won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991.
Eliza, a mediocre 9-year-old, feels excluded from her over-achieving family. Her father is a self-taught Kabbalist, her mother a high-powered lawyer, and her musically prodigious older brother hopes to someday become a rabbi, which makes him the apple of their father’s eye. But when Eliza wins the school spelling bee and then districts and finds herself prepping for Nationals, her family’s delicate balance is suddenly thrown out of whack.
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is a failed basketball star who hits a quarter-life crisis and up and leaves his wife and son. Described as a grown-up Holden Caulfield, it’s quite possible readers will end up hating the hero of this Great American Novel. Be that as it may, the first of Updike’s “trilogy of five” showcases his talent for capturing the “middle-class man” like no one else.
The Little Friend
Not quite the murder-mystery-thriller one might expect after reading the book jacket, Tartt’s prose mirrors its Mississippi summer setting: languid, evocative, unfolding at its own pace. Harriet was just a baby when her 9-year-old brother was murdered in the family’s yard. Twelve years later Harriet is mostly raising herself, her mother in a stupor of near-constant sedation, her older sister spending her days sleeping and crying. A precocious girl, Harriet decides to use her freedom to solve the mystery of her brother’s death, getting to know the neighborhood meth-addicts in the process.
Okay, granted, our final book on the list is not exactly set in the suburbs, but expertly rendered domestic angst is what makes one of Wharton’s most-read novels such a classic. Ethan Frome and his hypochondriacal wife, Zeena, are stuck together on their failing farm when Zeena’s beautiful young cousin enters the picture to become their hired girl. It’s a thin book, so we won’t reveal too much, but let’s just say “three’s a crowd” definitely applies.
As the summer days begin their quick descent into September, we’re reminded of going back to school: days filled with 8 a.m. class, 6 p.m. dinner, and the general quotidian that, to most of us, also means back to reality. Well, nothing’s more realistic than nuclear families and suburban conflicts: children walking on eggshells around ice-clinking parents, wives crying at the kitchen sink, manicured lawns where, as the poet Mary Ruefle once wrote, “underneath it all, the insects are tearing each other to pieces.” Here’s our list of suburban novels that focus on the dark side of the everyday.
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