The Most Fun We Ever Had
I’ll start with Claire Lombardo. Much of the pleasure of reading her new novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, derives from the fact that the voice I’m listening to is thrillingly new and unexpected, and it introduces readers to one of the most vividly rendered fictional families I’ve ever encountered. There are other surprises, too. Because the book is written by a woman, some reviewers will likely mischaracterize its subject matter as “domestic,” whereas Ms. Lombardo’s is in fact hunting much bigger game. Her real subject is contemporary American suburban life, whose every nuance she captures brilliantly. Lombardo is “domestic” only in the sense that Jane Austen is.
Every bit as surprising was last year’s Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, a book thrust into my hand not by an editor but one of my daughters. It’s the story of a young slave in Barbados, nicknamed Wash, who escapes from his brutal plantation by means of a flying contraption that’s half glider and half balloon, thereby inviting valid comparisons to both Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and, of course, Jules Verne. The balance Edugyan establishes and maintains between her book’s serious subject matter and the traditional adventure story is something of a narrative miracle, and the tale’s central friendship between Wash and a white man named Titch feels like Huck and Jim in reverse.
The Great Believers
Okay, I knew how good Rebecca Makkai was before I read The Great Believers. I’d chosen a story of hers for Best American Short Stories a decade ago and been following her career with interest ever since. Still, I wasn’t prepared for Believers, a novel of breathtaking ambition that reduced me to tears a dozen times. That’s pretty rare for me, despite the fact that I am, I confess, a bit of a sentimentalist, especially now that I’ve gotten older and my emotions are nearer the surface than they once were. But having tugged at readers’ heartstrings myself, I know how it’s done, and it’s a rare writer who can make me forget the tricks of my own trade. (Once you’ve taken the underground tour of the Magic Kingdom, the above-ground version can’t help but lose some of its enchantment.) But the best books break down our defenses, make us forget everything we know, including, while we read, what’s real. The Great Believers is a big book with a huge cast of characters, and every single one of them wrecked me.
A House Among the Trees
Another novel from last year that I haven’t been able to shake is Julia Glass’s A House Among the Trees, which begins with the death of a world-famous children’s book author (think Maurice Sendak) named Mort Lear, who’s unexpectedly willed his entire estate to his companion and helpmate, Tomasina Daulair, along with a set of instructions seemingly designed to make her more enemies than friends. For anyone interested in the creative process—how and why artists and writers and actors become what they are, as well as how they differ from the rest of us—this book is for you. It’s also a haunting meditation on love in all its various forms, as well as the unexpected obligations love entails.
Since becoming a writer myself, I’ve read far more fiction than nonfiction. Lately, perhaps because so many powerful nonfiction books have grabbed the nation’s attention in these fraught times, I’ve started expanding outward, and I’m glad I have. Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which follows the lives of several families who have been forced out of their homes, benefits from asking the exact right questions: Are poor people poor because they make bad choices, or do they make bad choices because they’re poor? Do they habitually zig when they should zag, or do their circumstances make zigging and zagging more or less irrelevant? How do family, race, and culture factor in? Read this book and you’ll find yourself thinking not just about the poor but also about the rich, especially those born on third base and convinced they’ve hit triples. Are they rich because they zigged when the zigging was good, or did inherited wealth protect them from the consequences of disastrous zagging? The validity of our shared American dream depends on how we answer such questions.
Chances Are . . .
A lot of my reading, as you might imagine, is directed. Because my own career was aided by endorsements from writers with well established careers (Howard Frank Moser, John Irving, Barry Hannah, Pat Conroy), I like to pay their generosity forward by reading and drawing attention to the work of emerging writers. No good deed goes unpunished, however, and the unintended consequence of offering blurbs is more and more advanced readers editions and manuscripts arriving in the mail, so many that I sometimes despair of ever again being able to read a book of my own choosing.
But there’s the thing: my “what-I-myself-want-to-read” scorecard is no better than the one upon which I record those ARCs sent by editors who may or may not know my tastes, books authored by writers I’ve never heard of. Actually, that makes a kind of sense. The better you teach a music streaming service about what you like, the less new, exciting stuff it will recommend. Same with books. I already know that Kate Atkinson is a terrific writer. As are Lauren Groff and Sarah Waters and Jess Walter. The only way for our favorite writers to surprise us is by writing a bad book—whereas discovering somebody new? There’s no limit. How special is that?
Featured Image: @musiena/Twenty20