The Great Believers
Makkai writes unflinchingly about AIDS decimating a friend group in 1980’s Chicago; the crisis casts such a long shadow, it even colors the book’s second narrative set in 2015 Paris in the wake of the terror attacks. The story will gut you, but it’s the book’s eye on legacy that makes it an uplifting read. Makkai’s lovingly rendered characters struggle to make art, protect art, document truth, have their say and raise a new generation that will do better embracing our common humanity. It’s a lovely story with two irresistible leads anchoring two very different timelines. At first you’ll wonder what one has to do with the other Makkai manages to string them together like they were the natural double helix in a single strand of DNA: the life she creates from it radiates from every page.
This book has an irresistible hook: on a hot, restless day in 1969, the Gold siblings—two boys and two girls, the oldest, Varya, barely an adolescent–visit a traveling psychic with the rumored power to tell you the day that you will die. The children can’t resist hearing their fortunes. But that’s just the opening. Benjamin flashes forward so that we can see each prophecy play itself out. Klara grows up to be a Las Vegas illusionist, hoping to master magic itself. Older son Daniel becomes an Army medic, wanting to take some control over bodily fate. Varya is consumed by longevity research. But it’s the baby, golden boy Simon who followed his heart to San Francisco, who captured my heart. (And not just because I, one of four siblings–two boys and two girls, ran away to California to pursue my dreams.) This book is a stunning meditation of fate, faith, and the power we have to define our own lives that will keep you up all night until you finish. And even then, the Golds will stay in your heart long after you slide The Immortalists on a shelf alongside your favorites.
In 1950, Dora Judd wins a painting (a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers) in a Christmas raffle and feels such an instant connection to the work she even declares “This painting is me.” And it’s such an appropriate way for this book to open; each spare sentence is as delicate as a brushstroke, and Winman skillfully layers one on the next to create a stunning depiction of friendship, loss and the desire to feel truly alive. But the book is not so much about Dora as it is Ellis Judd who befriends Michael when both are all of twelve. They’re inseparable as boys, but when the book jumps ahead, Ellis is married to Annie and Michael is no where to be found. The closing of that time gap is where the book’s real power lies. Tin Man is barely two hundred pages, yet packs an emotional wallop that many novels twice its length struggle to deliver. You will cry and you will fall deeply for its central characters and you will absolutely love it.
Castellani’s novel opens with Tennessee Williams and his lover Frank Merlo attending a 1953 party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy and, despite the high degree of difficulty, he pulls it off like a diver flawlessly entering the water with little splash. While the bulk of the story flashes forward and focuses on a fictional actress of Castellani’s creation, his interpretation of Tennessee Williams looms throughout. The brilliance in Castellani’s novel comes from his own ability to create tragic, Williams-esque heroes; even when Williams is missing from the action, his presence is felt in the writing. Leading Men is sprawling, yet intimate and it’s a beautifully considered exploration of what keeps two people together as much as what breaks them apart.
Days Without End
Set against the backdrop of the American Indian and American Civil Wars, Days Without End is a shockingly violent and often bleak look at an America in need of taming. And yet it’s beautifully written, poetic even, and at its heart is an exploration of American identity and family. What defines a family in Barry’s novel is not blood or DNA, but love, respect, and the desire to protect both. Thomas McNulty and John Cole develop an intimate relationship when they’re hired as teenagers to dress as women and dance in a saloon. They hide their relationship when they enlist in the Army and are commissioned to fight in war. In their private lives, Thomas continues to dress as a woman and they even marry, taking in a Sioux girl named Winona. Thomas feels more himself as a woman than as a man, even adapting a new name – Thomasina. Barry sensitively portrays his character’s yearning to be his (or perhaps I should say her) authentic self a century before there was even the language–let alone acceptance–for their cause.
The Female Persuasion
The opportunity to be admired and recognized by someone we admire … how is that something we could resist? For Greer Kadetsky, building a relationship with an older mentor, Faith Frank, changes the course of her life. I’ve long admired Wolitzer as a writer of important fiction. Alas, Wolitzer herself noted in a 2012 essay in the New York Times Book Review that often even literary fiction by women gets branded “women’s fiction,” given commercial covers and ultimately are not marketed toward men. And that’s a shame. More men should read Wolitzer, and books by and about women. The Female Persuasion gathers so many big ideas and strings them together with two vibrant, relatable characters, representing a bridge of sorts between second and third-wave feminism. But this is not just a dry exploration of feminist theory. Wolitzer’s writing is sharp, witty and intimate in a way that makes it hard to put the book down.
In The Editor, my new novel from G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a young gay writer in early 1990s New York, armed with a candidly autobiographical family novel, is stunned to learn that book editor Jacqueline Onassis is keen on acquiring it for publication. His mother (a character based on her is at the heart of James’s novel) is less than pleased. She can’t accept that her flaws and shortcomings will be pored over by “Mrs. Kennedy,” a woman idealized as the very image of American motherhood. James finds himself trapped trying to please two very different women with outsized influence on his life.
There’s long been something about gay men and strong women that make them natural allies. In celebration of the The Editor’s publication, I wanted to share some recent fiction where both fully-realized LGBT and vital female characters mix. These books have been inspirational in my writing; I recommend them wherever I go.
Author photo © Matthew Allard