Lady Be Good
In a playpen full of rich men, how is a woman to choose which one to marry? Kitty Tessler spends her evenings dating the sorts of wealthy playboys and idle heirs to fortunes that her father despises. He made his own fortune running hotels and nightclubs, and now he wants his daughter to make a strategic marriage to someone in his circle. Kitty has other plans and ends up journeying to Cuba, where—though dazzled by Havana’s nightlife—she’s brought back to earth by the injustices she observes in the light of day. Can she find a way to choose her own future?
In the stunning Italian Riviera town of Portofino, Truman Capote gathers celebrities and literati for a party. Among the guests are playwright Tennessee Williams and his longtime love, Frank Merlo, who first encounter actress Anja Blomgren (a fictional representation of Liv Ullmann) on that July night. Years later as Frank lies on his deathbed, he struggles to remember a number of events set in motion that night. Frank gave up his own career to support to Tennessee; in exchange, he lived in close acquaintance with the glitz and glamour of cultural stars. In evaluating his life as it fades, what are his regrets? And what moments will he consider triumphs?
Song of a Captive Bird
The messages given to girls in the 1950s—in the U.S. and abroad—emphasized obedience, modesty, and developing the qualities desired by potential husbands. Forugh Farrokhzad is raised in Tehran by parents who insist on these standards, but that’s not the life she envisions. She loves writing poetry, which horrifies her parents, who respond by marrying her off to a man she barely knows. Farrokhzad’s rebellion against her arranged marriage—continuing to write poetry, an extra-marital affair—shocks Tehran, and the personal costs to her are high. But her story is wildly inspirational, and readers will fall in love with her bold spirit.
The Wildling Sisters
Eve Chase takes readers on a journey with all the thrilling elements of the gothic novel. At the center of the story is Applecote Manor, the house where the four Wildling siblings go to live in 1959. In the book’s prologue, Chase drops hints to a terrible secret shared by the sisters, an event that will continue to influence each of them long after they’ve grown up and left the house. But even prior to the Wildling sisters’ arrival, the house held secrets of its own, including the disappearance of their cousin, Audrey, and other long-forgotten stories. When the truth demands a reckoning, what will it cost each of the sisters?
Korea was divided in half along the 38th parallel after the end of World War II. In 1950, North Korean soldiers crossed the parallel, and the proxy war between the Russian-backed North and the American-backed South began. By 1953, five million lay dead. The war created countless refugees, and in his celebrated novel—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—Chang-Rae Lee weaves together the stories of an orphan, June, an American soldier, Hector, and a missionary, Sylvie, who meet within the walls of an orphanage. Years later, June will go in search of Hector in order to solve the mystery of her missing son. Readers who appreciate finely wrought prose will find much to love in this exquisite book.
The Book of Daniel
E.L. Doctorow was one of the great chroniclers of American history, turning events from dusty textbooks into vivid stories chock-full of fascinating characters. In The Book of Daniel, Doctorow imagines the life of a boy who witnessed the arrest and eventual execution of his parents for spying on behalf of the Soviets. As an adult, Daniel is supposed to be working on his PhD dissertation, but instead finds himself recording events from his childhood and memories with his parents prior to those terrible days of the trial. In doing so, he also exposes an America that operated under cover of darkness, including the denunciations of men and women suspected of not being patriotic enough during the all-encompassing Cold War.
The Great Pretenders
Roxanne Granville is the elegant daughter of privilege who’s grown up in an artistic home filled with Hollywood royalty. Despite her fairy-tale beginnings, Roxanne thinks that a prominent mark on her face makes her less beautiful, according to the film industry’s unrealistic standards. The mark may be a blessing, however, because Roxanne develops her talents and explores other ways to make a name for herself in a culture devoted to the beautiful and the damned. When she meets Terrence Dexter, an African American journalist, she falls in love, and their affair breaks rules and makes a lot of Roxanne’s circle uncomfortable. Who are the great pretenders? Kalpakian’s nuanced novel explores the various ways people perform in order to get by.
The Hours Count
How far would you go to protect your country? What if it meant spying on a friend? Cantor raises these and other questions in the imagined life of Millie Stein, whose next-door neighbors, the Rosenbergs, are a generous couple who have helped her with her young son. But when her husband and her son’s teacher suggest to her that the Rosenbergs may not be who they appear, they ask Millie to watch them. As she gets pulled further into her friendship with the couple and the speculations on how dangerous they are, she’s forced to make decisions on behalf of her friends, her son, and her country.
For three boys growing up in the summer of 1959, their neighborhood is an imagined conclave of Russian spies, World War II military heroes, and hidden diplomats. When a spider infestation hits the neighborhood, John, Ivan, and Max speculate that the Soviets are engaged in “insect warfare.” More hijinks follow the three best friends, and when they decide at a block party to spike the punch, mayhem erupts—and not all of it harmless. A coming-of-age tale in the tradition of Tom Sawyer, Summerlings may be the comic novel you’ve been waiting for.
The Secrets We Kept
We may think of Doctor Zhivago as the film with the dreamy Omar Sharif and tragic Julie Christie set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. But before it became a film, it was a novel by Boris Pasternak, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but prevented from leaving the USSR to receive it. His book never would have made it to the world if not for the courageous women of this novel, who helped smuggle the book out of the Soviet Union at great personal risk. Their daring story will keep you turning pages well past your bedtime.
The Chelsea Girls
In the Chelsea region of New York City, the famed Chelsea Hotel has welcomed creative spirits and restless wanderers for generations. In the 1950s, two women fight to bring their play to the stage but find restrictions imposed on them by the paranoia about communism that infected the arts scene. Can the desire to see a life’s dream come to fruition prevail against Cold War propaganda? And what will happen to their friendship as the women are tested in ways they could never have imagined?
In 1958, three young people jockey for position in the competitive world of publishing. Miles is a Black writer with talent to burn; Eden wants to be an editor but finds doors closed to her because she’s a woman; and Cliff Nelson thinks he’s his generation’s greatest novelist, if he could just get his publisher father to pay attention to him. Greenwich Village was home to many young people who moved to New York to make it big. In this rollicking novel, three of their stories come to life.
The After Party
Even as the beneficiaries of oil money that makes them rich as Croesus, the women in Anton Disclafani’s novel are governed by laws of behavior more restricting than the girdles that rein in their bodies. Joan and Cece are lifelong friends, with Joan the star and Cece her constant companion. When Joan begins acting in ways that cause others to gossip, Cece appoints herself as the friend who will bring Joan back into the fold of respectability. But has Cece overstepped the bounds (and bonds) of friendship? And what will the cost be to Joan for wanting something beyond her glamorous life?
Boy, Snow, Bird
Helen Oyeyemi’s super power as an author is turning well-known fairy tales into rich, wickedly entertaining novels. In New York, a girl named Boy escapes basement life in order to build something new in a small town in New England. There she meets and falls in love with Arturo, a widower raising a daughter on his own. Boy becomes stepmother to the radiant Snow, and when Boy gives birth to another child, she must protect each of the sisters from the dangers posed by jealousy and anger. Oyeyemi’s brilliant retelling of Snow White is pure magic firmly grounded in the reality of1950s small-town life.
Next Year in Havana
Elisa Perez has led a sheltered life as the daughter of a sugar baron. But when revolutionary forces begin to shake up the old guard in Cuba, Elisa emerges from her safe space in order to interact with those who seek to overthrow Cuba’s oligarchy. She falls in love with a revolutionary, but as events progress, she’s forced to make painful choices. Many years later, her granddaughter, Marisol, has been charged with Elisa’s last request to have her ashes scattered in her native home. While Marisol differs in significant ways from her grandmother, when she arrives in Cuba, she reconnects to her family’s past in unexpected ways.
The 1950s in America is often painted as a “golden age,” filled with post-World War II optimism, a booming peacetime economy, and the growth of suburbs, meaning that many families for the first time were able to own their own homes.
That’s one view. But it was also a time when America was involved in various overseas operations both clandestine and public, Jim Crow dominated laws across the South while de facto segregation existed in other parts of the country, queer folks were closeted, and gender discrimination was still written into law. For novelists, it presents a cornucopia of topics and characters to imagine—conflict, romance, politics, the arts. Writers looking back at the decade offer rich perspectives on what life was like during that remarkable decade. We’ve gathered some of them below.
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