The premise of this book could be summarized as: Freshman at Harvard falls for upperclassman and spends a summer in Europe. Such a summary would give you the entire wrong impression of what this book is about, even though technically all of those things happen. This is a book about not understanding. Have you ever felt like no matter what you say or how you say it no one understands you? All those places where love and language fail to bridge the distance between us—Batuman’s heroine, Selin, feels like she has fallen off the bridge and fallen in love at the same time.
If you think philosophy and linguistics are interesting, this book is for you. But even if you don’t already self identify as loving those things, this one is worth a read, if only for some of the descriptions: “a slab of chocolate cake the size of a child’s tombstone.” Or my personal favorite: “A heap of thermal long underwear resembled a pile of souls torn from their bodies. Women were clawing through the piled souls, periodically holding one up in the air so it hung there all limp and abandoned.”
I feel like this book never got the attention it deserved—if you think it is going to be a sweet ballet book about sheltered bunheads, you are very wrong. Shipstead presents her dancers as athletes, ruthless, powerful, arrogant and unashamed. There is a lot of very interesting sex and a lot of very complicated emotions. Shipstead’s concerns are existential in the BEST way: “Her throat is tight with fear. She is afraid of how this man, this stranger, has already changed the sensation of being alive. She is afraid he will slip away.”
We are all afraid we aren’t good enough, but Shipstead’s heroine Joan knows she isn’t good enough. Her lover is one of the greatest dancers in the world, and she is not. What is to be done? What is the value of love (or art) if it also destroys you? It’s a gorgeous, highly readable and thoughtful book.
The Learning Curve
I liked Mandy Berman’s debut, Perennials, which is a delicious take on summer camp (nostalgia, love, moral ambiguity), but I think I love The Learning Curve more. A love triangle between two undergrads and a charismatic visiting professor, Berman’s book is just as much about the mechanics of power as it is about love.
Woman No. 17
Woman No. 17 is as uncomfortable as Normal People, but not as restrained and chilly. Lepucki is instead unpredictable, odd, and deeply funny, in this story about a divorced couple, a live in nanny and, of course, an affair.
In some ways, Woman No. 17 is the most disturbing book on this list, in part because the characters and the reality of the book itself seem subtly distorted, like they are being reflected on the ripples of a pool. A book about art making as much as about suburban life, Woman No. 17 vibrates with a peculiar chaotic energy that reminds me of Didion. In the very first scene, the mother Lady is interviewing S for the nanny position. “We were steps from the pool and I imagined pushing S into the deep end. Her horrible dress would bunch around her waist and I’d see her blurry cream-cheese-white thighs.” This flight of imagination is not explained because there is no way to explain it. Sometimes you just briefly imagine pushing someone into a pool. And sometimes you do something much worse. As an added bonus, Lepucki writes great sex scenes.
Topics of Conversation
Topics of Conversation is a collection of conversations that span twenty years in the narrator’s life, discussions mostly about love and desire and power. While it lacks the propulsive will-they-won’t-they of a romance plot, Topics of Conversation is still a contender for most complete one to one match in terms of Rooney-ishness. Popkey’s prose is detached and she and Rooney share an instinct to suss out vulnerability and then slice it thin in layers so we can see exactly what it’s made of.
As compulsively readable as Normal People, Very Nice is ultimately much more lighthearted: an undergrad, the professor she is having an affair with, and her mother all living together in a fancy house. What could go wrong?
This book has everything: standard poodles, lesbians, literary agents, a playboy actor, politics and a ton of sex scenes all in a Rooney-ish clipped style. This is how the book opens:
“I didn’t think, the day I kissed my professor, that he would kiss me back. His lips were soft. He tasted like coffee. The coffee I had made for him. ‘That was very nice,’ he said.”
The Knockout Queen
Oh, Sally Rooney, whatever is psychologically wrong with you is wrong with us all. There is something raw and uncomfortable about the love stories Sally Rooney tells that makes them addictive. Her heroines tend towards the chilly, aloof and abstract—maybe we wish we could all play it that close to the vest—but I love seeing romantic love treated within the greater intellectual framework that kind of distance enables.
For me the following books are all addictively readable and electrifying in that same way, honest about things that make us nervous, painful and fun at the same time.
Featured image: Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in Episode #1.11 (2020)