Clare Swanson

In his fourth book, Lookaway, Lookaway, novelist Wilton Barnhardt sticks with what he knows. A professor at North Carolina State University and native of the state, Barnhardt is well equipped to bring the manicured, yet scandalous, world of Southern high society to life. The result is an effervescent novel best described in terms of the characters that populate it.

The story hinges on the Johnston family’s unflinching, poised, perfectly mannered matriarch, Jerene. Her husband, Joseph “Duke” Johnston, is a non-practicing lawyer and onetime rising political star in Charlotte, who now devotes most of his brainpower to an obsession with an obscure Civil War battle. Jerene’s brother Gaston, the author of a popular series of commercial novels, pines after a decidedly more highbrow reputation. He feels like a sell-out, and loses himself in bourbon at the local country club.

The Johnston children are as much at sea as the adults. Annie, the eldest, continually tries to subvert the notion of a good old-fashioned debutante. Bo, a preacher, feels out of place both on the pulpit and in his complicated marriage. The third, Joshua, is disenfranchised within his family by his homosexuality, which goes unacknowledged even after the most unceremonious of coming-outs. The baby, Jerilyn, begins as the natural heir to her mother’s legacy, but is shoved off course by a trauma that is, true to Johnston form, quickly swept under the rug.

As family members attempt to reconcile an antebellum past with their messy present, they grapple with evolving notions of legacy, race, class and personal identity. Their storylines circle one another, held in the same orbit by the unrelenting centripetal force that is Jerene. She manages the public relations for her family, rarely letting her humanity show even in the most raw and devastating scenarios. As the task of keeping the historic family name in good standing becomes too daunting even for her, the novel boils to its explosive conclusion.

In his fourth book, Lookaway, Lookaway, novelist Wilton Barnhardt sticks with what he knows. A professor at North Carolina State University and native of the state, Barnhardt is well equipped to bring the manicured, yet scandalous, world of Southern high society to life. The result is an effervescent novel best described in terms of the […]

Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 bestseller, This Is Where I Leave You, garnered wide critical acclaim. With his penchant for finding levity in the most dismal of places, Tropper was frequently compared to Tom Perrotta and Nick Hornby. The parallels are apt, but as Tropper proves in his latest, One Last Thing Before I Go, his darkly comic and unpredictably insightful style is entirely his own.

Silver is a man without much to live for. He lives in the Versailles, an apartment complex that functions as something of a halfway house for, as Tropper puts it, “sad, damaged men” who are making their way, some slower than others, out of painful divorces. The former drummer of a band defined by their one-hit wonder, Silver has been on the decline since the group unraveled. He pines after the life he led with his ex-wife, Denise, who is weeks away from marrying a successful and mild-mannered doctor, and his Princeton-bound daughter, Casey. Amid the chaos of the impending nuptials and one adolescent pregnancy, Silver and his broken family are once again rocked when he receives a life-threatening diagnosis, one that can be treated by a routine operation. A routine operation Silver refuses to have.

As he effectively rules in favor of his own death sentence, Silver reluctantly begins a startling education in himself, and the roles he has played—with varying degrees of success—as a father, husband, brother and son.

Tropper’s prose is a perfect blend of irreverence and beauty. Like Hornby, he has a real command of the male voice, but the women certainly don’t get second billing here. This is a book populated by robust and knowable characters whose relationships perfectly capture the disarray of family life. They simultaneously heal and damage one another, and all the while, Tropper leads you through their commotion with humor and aplomb.

Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 bestseller, This Is Where I Leave You, garnered wide critical acclaim. With his penchant for finding levity in the most dismal of places, Tropper was frequently compared to Tom Perrotta and Nick Hornby. The parallels are apt, but as Tropper proves in his latest, One Last Thing Before I Go, his darkly […]

In 2010, novelist and journalist John Lanchester published I.O.U, Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay—a timely, approachable and anecdotal look at the fiscal crisis in Britain and beyond. In his latest, Capital, he once again explores the unraveling economy, this time through the lens of fiction.

The novel revolves around the homeowners of Pepys Road, an imagined street in the South London neighborhood of Clapham, initially developed to provide housing for lower income families. Though some of the original homes remain, the street has been transformed, both by gentrification and lavish renovations, and the real estate is now worth millions. And in 2007, so are its residents, who include a banker and his label-hungry wife; a Pakistani shop owner and family; and a widow dying of a brain tumor. The many and varied narratives are woven together by a mysterious, anonymous campaign of postcards and DVDs sent to the residents with the simple, repeated message: “We Want What You Have.”

The thread works effectively as glue for the epic cast of characters, often bringing them together on a literal level, but it also functions well as a dramatic device. As the novel moves into 2008, the fiscal crisis takes shape, and life for the people of Pepys Road begins to fall apart in conjunction with the global economy. The ominous and ever-present phrase taunts the characters, and in different ways, forces them into self-examination. The story is peopled by engagingly flawed, fully realized characters, drawn into a harmonious narrative by taut, fluid prose.

Though Capital is a big, broad, multicultural cross-section of one street in a specific neighborhood of one city, Lanchester speaks of matters—a troubled economy; prevailing notions of class and race—that are all too universal.

In 2010, novelist and journalist John Lanchester published I.O.U, Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay—a timely, approachable and anecdotal look at the fiscal crisis in Britain and beyond. In his latest, Capital, he once again explores the unraveling economy, this time through the lens of fiction. The novel revolves around the homeowners […]

From Notes on a Scandal to the real-life antics of Mary Kay Letourneau, relationships between teachers and students hold perennial intrigue in our culture. Set in Maryland at the time of the Lewinsky scandal, Rebecca Coleman’s psychologically disturbing novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, explores the dark, illicit side of desire.

Judy McFarland, a kindergarten teacher at the progressive and alternative Waldorf School, feels broken and displaced—she is haunted by the untimely death of her best friend and stuck in an unhappy, angry marriage with Russ, a Ph.D. candidate. Judy is asked to supervise 16-year-old Zach, a lonely transplant from New Hampshire, as he fulfills his service hours. Drawn together by mutual feelings of betrayal by their parents (in addition to untethered lust) the two quickly enter into an affair. Over time, Zach begins to retreat from increasingly obsessive, insatiable Judy, whose sexual proclivities grow unapologetically unsettling and unseemly. The novel barrels toward a suspenseful end as they both face the inevitable consequences of choices made.

The Kingdom of Childhood raises messy and controversial questions, making it a natural pick for book clubs. Coleman does not demand sympathy for her main character, and in fact, Judy’s break from reality and obscured moral barometer stokes the tension even further. Though at her strongest when revisiting Judy’s childhood in Germany, overall Coleman writes with a flair for capturing the underbelly of the human psyche and the all-consuming nature of desire.

From Notes on a Scandal to the real-life antics of Mary Kay Letourneau, relationships between teachers and students hold perennial intrigue in our culture. Set in Maryland at the time of the Lewinsky scandal, Rebecca Coleman’s psychologically disturbing novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, explores the dark, illicit side of desire. Judy McFarland, a kindergarten teacher […]

Lily Tuck, who won the 2004 National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, has long been heralded for her elegant, spare prose and predilection for complex characters and philosophical inquiry. Her latest novel, I Married You for Happiness, which potently documents one woman’s response to her husband’s death, displays everything critics and readers have come to expect from this talented writer.

Philip, a successful mathematician at a university in Cambridge, arrives home from work and tells his wife, Nina, that he needs to lie down before dinner. A short while later, Nina discovers his lifeless body in the bed they shared. She spends the remainder of the night by his side, drinking the red wine meant for the meal and recalling their life together. Her fractured web of memories results in something of a meandering obituary for Philip, as well as their marriage, and carries us from their meeting at a cafe in 1960s Paris to his unexpected end. At first, it appears to be a classic case of love that relies on the joyful equilibrium of opposites—Nina, an artist, is the dreamer; Philip the logician. But as the novel progresses, her grief and introspection expose a decidedly more complicated relationship, one that is dominated by Philip’s relentless devotion to probability, yet, paradoxically, ridden with uncertainty. 

The writing is lyrical and striking, vividly capturing the nature of memory and the way in which love, though never simple, is contained and proven in the small, indelible moments of our lives. Many writers attempt to navigate the territory of grief: those manic days after loss, the weeks where life repairs itself and the months when normal begins to feel, once again, possible. But this slim, magnificent novel is rarified by its heartbreaking immediacy, and the moving, aching stream of consciousness chronicles not only the psychology of shock and mourning, but also the minute-by-minute way in which Nina begins to put life as she knows it in the past tense.

Lily Tuck, who won the 2004 National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, has long been heralded for her elegant, spare prose and predilection for complex characters and philosophical inquiry. Her latest novel, I Married You for Happiness, which potently documents one woman’s response to her husband’s death, displays everything critics and readers have […]

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