Eliza Borné

Everyone has a different opinion of Valentine's Day. It's a groan-worthy Hallmark holiday. The most romantic day of the year. An occasion to watch bad romantic comedies with friends. An excuse to eat an entire box of Russell Stover candies.

No matter how you feel, you can probably agree that books that celebrate love—whether pulse-pounding romantic love, obsessive love, familial love or love between friends—are books to cherish. In honor of Valentine's Day, we want to share our nine favorite literary love stories of the early 2000s. Now grab a hunk of chocolate and keep reading . . .

Bel Canto (2001)

Would any list of love stories be complete without this novel? The relationships in a group of terrorists and hostages sound anything but sexy—but trust me that this unusual cast will have you crying and sighing after about 30 minutes of reading. Bonus: You'll find yourself in love with opera after author Ann Patchett has cast her spell.
Read more in BookPage.

The Time Traveler's Wife (2003)

Audrey Niffenegger's story of Henry (a punk-loving, time traveling librarian) and Clare (an artist) has become a contemporary classic. It's clever, heart-breaking and romantic—and I envy the reader who hasn't discovered it yet.
Read more in BookPage.

The History of Love (2005)

"Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering." Need I say more about Nicole Krauss's wonderful book?
Read more in BookPage.

The Myth of You & Me (2005)

Leah Stewart's graceful story attempts to answer this central question: Can a friendship ever be mended once the bonds of trust have been shattered? This is one of our favorite novels about the complicated love between friends.
Read more in BookPage.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005)

Lisa See writes beautifully about two girls in 19th-century China who build a friendship that exceeds even their love for their own families.
Read more in BookPage.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) 

Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel addresses teenage love, obsessive love, unrequited love and more. It's hip, high-energy and hysterical.
Read more in BookPage.

The Post-Birthday World (2007)

Lionel Shriver's cleverly constructed novel (think Sliding Doors) is about passionate love, comfortable love and the love that could have been. If you love to ask "What if?" this book is for you.
Read more in BookPage.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)

This delightful novel about the people of the Channel Island of Guernsey includes a tender love story that will make your heart flutter. Even better, the novel itself is practically an ode to booklovers. (And the way author Annie Barrows finished the book for her dying aunt Mary Ann Shaffer is lovely, too.)
Read more in BookPage.

My Abandonment (2009)

This pick falls into the "unconventional" category of love stories, but we think Peter Rock's spare, haunting novel is one of the most fascinating stories of parent/child love published in recent years.
Read more in BookPage.

Everyone has a different opinion of Valentine's Day. It's a groan-worthy Hallmark holiday. The most romantic day of the year. An occasion to watch bad romantic comedies with friends. An excuse to eat an entire box of Russell Stover candies. No matter how you feel, you can probably agree that books that celebrate love—whether pulse-pounding […]

It’s been nearly a year since Defending Jacob, William Landay’s third novel, was published—but this chilling psychological thriller doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. After months on the New York Times bestseller list, it recently came in at a whopping #3 on our Readers’ Choice list of the Best Books of 2012. (There’s also a movie in the works from Warner Brothers.)

Like John Grisham and Scott Turow, Landay is a former attorney who turned to writing crime fiction. Also like those superstars, he is adept at crafting an irresistibly suspenseful tale. Defending Jacob is about an assistant D.A. in an affluent suburban Massachusetts town whose life is completely turned upside down when his 14-year-old son is accused of murder. So what does he do next? The father sets out to defend his own son in court.  

If you are one of the many readers who got hooked on Defending Jacob, I hope you’ll enjoy these suggestions for what to read next.


Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

Novels like Defending Jacob are so compelling, in part, because they make us think about how life can irrevocably change in a single moment. In Lupton’s second novel (after 2011’s Sister), that moment is the outbreak of a fire at an elementary school—where Grace’s son is enrolled as a student and her teenage daughter works as a teaching assistant. Was it arson? And how are Grace’s children involved? Like Defending Jacob, this is a family-centered thriller that focuses on the great lengths a parent will go to protect his or her child.


Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

It may initially seem that a thriller and a massive nonfiction book have little in common—but in fact they address similar themes. How does a child grow up to commit criminal acts? How do parents react to major unforeseen life events? How do they move on after these events, if such a thing is even possible? For one chapter in his book, Solomon interviewed (and spent hundreds of hours with) the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre. This chapter is incredibly thought-provoking and sobering and would make an appropriate supplement to Defending Jacob—especially in light of the tragedy in Newtown, CT. (Solomon has written thoughtfully about that event, as well.)


Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

Bohjalian’s 1997 book about a midwife accused of murder (by performing an emergency c-section) is one of my favorite courtroom novels of recent memory, pitting doctors against midwives and townspeople against one another—all the while raising plenty of ethical dilemmas. Like Defending Jacob, this novel takes place in a small community and shows what it’s like for a family after a criminal accusation.


We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

 Defending Jacob begs comparison to Shriver’s 2003 Orange Prize-winning novel, in which a teenager commits a grotesque act of violence against his classmates. As you read descriptions of parental anguish and the violent actions of a disturbed boy, you will want to cover your eyes. For better or worse—this book may give you nightmares—you will be unable to stop reading thanks to Shriver’s clever plotting.


The Good Father by Noah Hawley 

This is another natural pick for readers who enjoyed Defending Jacob. In both novels, the narrator is a father who is unable to believe that his son committed murder—though in this case, the son is an adult, and the victim is a prominent presidential candidate. Why did the son do what he did? Could his parents have prevented the act of violence? A harrowing (and heartbreaking) story.

It’s been nearly a year since Defending Jacob, William Landay’s third novel, was published—but this chilling psychological thriller doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. After months on the New York Times bestseller list, it recently came in at a whopping #3 on our Readers’ Choice list of the Best Books of 2012. (There’s also a movie in the […]

In her perceptive debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, Julia Pierpont examines the effect that an extramarital affair has on one artistic New York City family. We asked Pierpont a few questions about the allure of the affair as a plot device, the brother-sister bond and smutty "Seinfeld" fan fiction.

Many novels are about marital affairs—why people have them, what comes next. Why do you think readers have such an endless appetite for this perennial family conflict?
I think adultery, really affairs of any sort, will forever compel our attention: It’s certainly the sexiest of the Ten Commandments one can break.

In my case, I was interested in depicting the sort of betrayal that would affect each member of a family, though in different ways. Why should children be so injured by their father’s betrayal of the vows he made, not to them, but to their mother? It isn’t about the children directly, and yet for that very same reason it is, it does hurt them. And then there is the added complication for the parents, once the kids are brought into it. How much more difficult does it become for parents to move beyond such transgressions without seeming to condone the same amoral behavior that we are taught, as children, to reject?

“I think adultery will forever compel our attention: It’s certainly the sexiest of the Ten Commandments one can break.”

I enjoyed observing the development of Kay and Simon’s relationship. Do you think their parents’ marital troubles brought them closer?
I’m glad that relationship resonated with you. Initially, yes, when Kay realizes that the only person she feels free to confide in is her brother, that recognition is something that really binds them to each other. They are both their parents’ children: The only two people in the world equipped to share the same burden. But then the way they each process their father’s affair is so different, which is pretty inevitable given their respective ages.

When we meet Simon, he is just embarking on the world of girls and popularity and mild drug use. He’s affected by his parents’ problems, but he’s reluctant to admit it on a conscious level. Kay’s world hasn’t opened up in the same way yet, she’s too young—her family is still everything to her. So Simon finds it irritating to be around his sister’s devastation, while Kay feels estranged by her brother’s apparent indifference.

Do you have a sibling yourself? If so, did you draw from your own sibling relationship to create the dynamic between Kay and Simon?
I’m an only child, which I’m sure has only amplified my interest in sibling dynamics. I remember begging my mother to have another kid—but what I really wanted was an older brother or sister. I would have loved it if she’d somehow managed that.

The four main characters in your novel have very distinct personalities and characteristics—though they’re all relatable in different ways, and it’s a pleasure to follow their stories. Do you have a special fondness for one specific character? Why?
I really did come to love them all—it’s strange now to go on without them. Jack was actually the most fun to write, though he’s liable to be the most difficult character for a reader to like. I think it was his way of looking at the world—even when circumstances were terrible, he’d notice what was funny or absurd about them. He also happens to be the only character with whom I have the least life experience in common, and so in a way he arrived more fully formed, separate from me.

Your novel has an unconventional plot structure. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll say only that readers do not discover the beginning, the middle, and the end in their natural order. Why did you decide to structure your book in this way? In your opinion, what do readers gain from this choice?
I knew early on that I wanted to look at time. In our lives, just as in the stories we read, there’s always a great deal of importance placed on endings. It’s an understandable, and very human—uniquely human—focus to have, but it can be detrimental to our days as we live them. In the Galway Kinnell poem from which I took my title, as well as the novel’s epigraph, we hear a father address his young daughter about the passing of time, though she is still far too young to understand, urging her to soak up her days on this earth though they will soon be over. There’s a passage in my book that refers to “between-time,” time that we spend waiting to see what will happen next, but which really winds up constituting our whole lives. The structure of the book is meant to remind us: These are the days we have.

Kay’s “Seinfeld” fan fiction is a hilarious entry into the young girl’s creative mind, and it’s a clever way to show how she understands her dad’s infidelity. Why “Seinfeld”? (Did you grow up catching those after-school re-runs?)
Thank you, those sections were fun to write. I watched reruns of sitcoms religiously after school, though when I was really young I was under the impression that the episodes were premiering that day, the way it is with soap operas. I knew I wanted a way into Kay, who’s a very shy, closed-off child—closed off to herself as well as to the people around her—and I thought her feelings could be more believably explored through her writing.

Why “Seinfeld” in particular? Putting aside the fact that I was already tremendously familiar with the show, I liked that it didn’t fall into any of the genres one typically associates with fan fiction, and that the more mature themes Kay would ultimately integrate into her writing would be especially incongruous with the cartoonishness of its characters.

How did you conceive of Jack’s art installation, complete with explosives? Did any real-life artists or installations inspire his work?
It was very important to me that the work be credible. For the most part, Jack’s projects weren’t inspired by any artist’s in particular; rather, they were the product of what I’d been able to glean about the art world and the kind of artist I imagined Jack to be.

There was one real-life artist who inspired some of Jack’s later art, in which he makes images by using the smoke of burning objects to singe his canvases. That artist’s name is Rob Tarbell and I found his smoke art online by total accident a few years ago; he makes these haunting pieces that really stuck with me.

What books are on your own personal summer reading list?
I’m reading Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels right now. Then I mean to pick up where I left off with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. So many series lately! Summer’s a good time for them. I read all of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books one summer while I was working behind a dark bar, wishing I were traipsing around Paris or Tangier or wherever Highsmith sent him.

Are there any authors who inspire you over and over? 
Oh sure, there are so many. Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster are big for me. Richard Yates, Harold Brodkey. Amy Hempel, Philip Roth, Nicholson Baker. I’m just reading what I love, that’s as inspiring as it gets for me. Lorrie Moore’s “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” was the first book I read that made me want to write. I loved what she was doing and I remember thinking, that, I want to do that.

What can you tell us about your next project?
Not as much as I’d like to! I’ve been working with siblings again, sisters, only this time the characters are closer to my own age, which is something I’ve been predisposed to avoid. It’s enough just to live it, without going home and writing about it too.
 

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Among the Ten Thousand Things.
 

In her perceptive debut novel, Julia Pierpont examines the effect that an extramarital affair has on one artistic New York City family. We asked Pierpont a few questions about the allure of the affair as a plot device, the brother-sister bond and smutty "Seinfeld" fan fiction.

2015 BookPage Summer Reads

Two new novels set in privileged northeastern communities showcase the darker side of family life.

Julia Pierpont’s anticipated debut reminds readers of a universally acknowledged fact: It’s a strange feeling when you realize your parents are human. For most of us, it happens in late adolescence or even early adulthood—when Mom and Dad start speaking up about job conundrums or relationship woes, or even (God forbid) sex. 

Among the Ten Thousand Things hinges on a devastating event that forces Kay Shanley, 11, and her 15-year-old brother, Simon, to prematurely confront a painful secret. In an explosive opening scene, Kay intercepts a package from her father’s lover—a printed chronicle of his affair, complete with explicit emails and a cruel letter addressed to Kay’s mom, Deb, who was meant to receive the R-rated evidence. Once Kay and Simon learn of their father’s infidelity, nothing is ever the same—though the events after the crisis are neither neat nor predictable. 

The Shanley family is outwardly accomplished though inwardly troubled. Jack, the father, is an acclaimed, though controversial, artist (one memorable scene involves an installation art piece gone horribly, horribly wrong). Kay has trouble fitting in at school and understanding her father’s affair, and she expresses herself by writing smutty “Seinfeld” fan fiction. Simon is a computer game-playing, pot-smoking, sullen teenager—impatient with his sister and ticked off at both parents. Deb, a former professional ballerina and a doting mom, tries to keep life as normal as possible for her children while processing her anger at Jack.

Pierpont is a strong, confident writer, and her well-observed characters feel deeply human. She is also a deft storyteller; many readers will be floored by an unexpected narrative twist in the middle of the novel that upends the conventions of plot structure and adds depth to the second half of the book—a welcome, if initially unsettling, surprise. Among the Ten Thousand Things is an impressive debut—a family drama alternately bright and bleak from a gifted young author.

Read our Q&A with Julia Pierpont.

A NOT-SO-PERFECT SUMMER
Even bleaker is The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak, set in a “Connecticut postcard-perfect” town. In alternating chapters, the story is told by Cheryl, the second wife of a successful businessman, and her stepson, Teddy, who has recently been kicked out of Dartmouth. Both Cheryl and Teddy feel a deep dissatisfaction with daily life in Little Neck Cove, and throughout an eventful, often violent summer they turn to each other—not to mention painkillers and booze—to cope with neighborhood busybodies and gossips. 

Cheryl feels like an outsider among the Country Club set (it doesn’t help that her husband’s first wife fell drunkenly to her death off a dock). She is stuck in a loveless marriage; for pleasure, she anonymously calls random numbers from the phonebook to see who will respond to her sultry voice. Cheryl also holds a scandalous secret, the keeping of which creates much of the novel’s tension. Teddy binges on sex and drugs.

The Invaders is a stiff cocktail without a chaser: It will wake you up, though it’s hard to get down. It lacks subtlety and feels as though it were written to shock—though some scenes are also wickedly funny. Little Neck Cove seems like a terrible place to live, though readers won’t mind gawking at its melodramatic residents for a while before returning to their own, more peaceful lives.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

 

Two new novels set in privileged northeastern communities showcase the darker side of family life.

There’s something irresistible about a boarding school novel: the picturesque grounds; the tight-knit community of teachers and students and staff; the routine of seminars, lacrosse games and chapel; the inevitable romances that bud in such an insular world. In The Half Brother, her second novel after 2010’s sensual The Swimming Pool, Holly LeCraw has created an appealing setting in the Abbott School, a campus at the top of a ridge in north Massachusetts where azaleas and cherry blossoms surround the stone and clapboard buildings, and the grass almost shimmers with mist.

After he graduates from Harvard, where he never quite belonged, Charlie Garrett falls under the spell of Abbott. “The only time I felt even slightly proficient at life was when I was holding a book in my hands,” he reflects during his interview to become a teacher. So he is hired to teach English, and one of the true joys of the novel is watching him gain confidence in the classroom. And it is a pleasure to get lost in LeCraw’s prose, which is both graceful and filled with smart observations. (“She nodded like a doctor who was pretending to be solicitous but really was just thinking of her next patient.”) The dramatic plot is less enchanting—though the pages turn quickly as we move back and forth from Charlie’s childhood to a decade of his life at Abbott.

Contrary to the title, the relationship at the center of the novel is that between Charlie and May Bankhead, the daughter of Abbott’s enigmatic chaplain. As May comes of age and the two seem to circle each other in the classroom and on campus, the romantic tension between them is palpable. But for reasons beyond their control, they cannot be together. In a somewhat inexplicable act of sacrifice (or possibly self-punishment), Charlie encourages his half brother, Nick, a golden child, to pursue May when the three of them eventually find themselves on the faculty at the same time. As this love triangle develops, readers will no doubt balk at certain twists that strain belief. Still, by the end, we’re invested in the characters and want to see them happy. And we understand the draw of Abbott, which seems humble yet magnificent—an enclave where people grow up and blossom in the rolling hills and the charming “honeycomb of crisscrossing paths.”

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

There’s something irresistible about a boarding school novel: the picturesque grounds; the tight-knit community of teachers and students and staff; the routine of seminars, lacrosse games and chapel; the inevitable romances that bud in such an insular world. In The Half Brother, her second novel after 2010’s sensual The Swimming Pool, Holly LeCraw has created an appealing setting in the Abbott School, a campus at the top of a ridge in north Massachusetts where azaleas and cherry blossoms surround the stone and clapboard buildings, and the grass almost shimmers with mist.

In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel envisions the world after a major flu pandemic has wiped out most of the population—though the themes in the book feel more timeless than typical for the post-apocalyptic genre. (What makes a fulfilling life? Is art worth saving when there’s so little left on earth?) We caught up with St. John Mandel about her suspenseful and intelligent new book.


What sort of research did you have to do to so fully create the post-collapse universe?
Researching this book was a fairly unsettling experience. Early on, I came across a faux-documentary that was produced by the History Channel, which outlined what might happen if a catastrophic pandemic were to hit the United States. The acting was terrible, but I found it quite useful for the practical details of what a societal collapse might look like. There were a lot of details that I hadn’t previously considered, like how quickly the grid would go down if people stop going to work in power plants. I suffered through the acting all the way through and took careful notes.

I also spent lot of time reading survivalist forums, which are exactly as insane as you might imagine. There’s a paranoid, heavily armed subset of the population who are preparing for the apocalypse and, one can’t help but suspect, kind of hoping it arrives soon so that all their years of preparation won’t go to waste. Mostly, I felt sorry for their kids. There were a lot of posts along the lines of “I’m taking my wife and four kids and we’re moving to an isolated location way off the grid, anyone have any suggestions for good homeschooling materials?”

 Even the most mundane objects become precious when there aren’t going to be any more of them.

And there were some details that I just picked up from other sources over time. In Station Eleven, cell phones stop working almost immediately. I was basing this on the 2003 blackout in New York City, when everyone tried to place phone calls simultaneously when the lights went out, and the cellular networks were immediately overwhelmed. When I was deep into writing the book, I read Peter Heller’s excellent novel The Dog Stars, which pointed out that automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. I was vastly relieved to come across this detail, because otherwise I might’ve messed up and had something gas-powered 10 years after the apocalypse, which probably would have triggered a few dozen Helpfully Correcting Emails from readers.

As you were writing about life after the apocalypse, did you develop a heightened appreciation for modern-day comforts?
I did. It’s possible that my upbringing left me with a somewhat heightened appreciation for the comforts of modern life—I grew up on a small rural island, and because trees have a way of falling on power lines during storms, it wasn’t terribly unusual to lose electricity for a few days at a time during the winter—but writing this book made me consider those comforts in a much more focused way. We take so much for granted. 

You write vividly about a museum inside an airport where survivors collect objects from before the collapse. If you’d been there, what would you have wanted to save?
I’d want to save almost everything I had with me in the airport. Even the most mundane objects become precious when there aren’t going to be any more of them. I mean, imagine looking at a comb or a deck of playing cards and realizing, well, there won’t be any more of these. How beautiful the pennies floating around the bottom of your carry-on bag would seem, if they were the last pennies you were ever likely to come across. Same with your boarding pass, the last receipt you were ever issued at a cash register, etc.

What would you miss the most from your former life?
I think what I would miss the most is electricity, also running water. And everything having to do with transportation and communications: the telephone system, airplanes, trains, gasoline for cars. I live in New York City, and my family lives on the other side of the continent, on the coast of British Columbia. It’s horrifying to imagine a world without airplanes, telephones or the Internet, which is to say a world where I’d never be able to see or speak to them again.

Speaking of which—I finished Station Eleven with a new regard for Canada. What do you miss about your home?
There are several things about Canada that I miss very much: my family, the single-payer healthcare system and gun control. I love my life in New York City, but these are no small things.

The works of Shakespeare play a major role in your book, especially Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Why those specific plays?
The novel opens during a performance of King Lear in Toronto, on a night when a devastating flu pandemic is spreading rapidly through the city. The flu has just arrived, and no one in the theatre knows what’s happening yet. King Lear struck me as an ideal play for that moment, because on one level it’s a play about loss. Lear loses absolutely everything—his kingdom, his family, his dignity, his life. Everyone in the theatre stands on the precipice of losing everything.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sheer entertainment. It appears in the book at a moment when the Traveling Symphony has arrived in a creepy little town that seems to have changed since they last visited. It seemed to me that if one wanted to cheer up a depressing place in the middle of summer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an excellent choice.

So do you think that even in the most difficult of circumstances, humans have a fundamental need to create art?
Yes, I do believe that. For a prime example of this need, one need look no further than the origins of jazz.  

A series of graphic novels links several of your plot threads. What was the inspiration for those books inside your book?
The inspiration was a Neil Gaiman book called Brief Lives, a collaboration he did with a graphic artist, and I loved the style.

Something remarkable has happened with Station Eleven—Picador publishes the book in the U.K., and they commissioned an artist to recreate a page from the graphic novels that I write about in the book. It’s an insert in the U.K. edition. The artist, Nathan Burton, executed it in a very traditional comic-book style, which is completely different from how I’d imagined it but, when I saw it, seemed absolutely perfect. I had it printed at poster size and professionally framed, and it hangs above my desk. It’s astonishing to see something that I wrote about brought to life like that.

There are a lot of storylines in Station Eleven, which make it especially fun for readers; it’s thrilling to have those aha! moments when one realizes how it all fits together. How did you organize such a tight and complex plot?
It makes me very happy to think of readers being thrilled at those moments. I made a map of the book in Excel, which was extremely helpful in keeping track of everything. The map was a list of sections and chapters, with brief descriptions of the action and point of view for each chapter, and page counts for each section. I was constantly reordering the book and moving chapters around.

Beyond that, it was just a matter of endlessly revising. My working copy of the Station Eleven manuscript that I sent to my agent was labeled “draft 25.” There weren’t actually 25 complete drafts by that point—when I’m working on a book, I copy the Word file and give it a new draft number every time I decide to make a major change, so that I can backtrack if necessary—but still. It took an enormous amount of work to pull the book together and it was a complete mess for a very long time.

Readers have strong opinions about post-apocalyptic novels. Did you worry that genre fatigue might turn people off?
Yes, absolutely. When I first started writing Station Eleven there weren’t many post-apocalyptic literary novels yet, but by the time the book was done, I feared the market was saturated. I worried that the book wouldn’t find a publisher for that reason. I had visions of editors reading the pitch letter and rolling their eyes, in an “Oh, fantastic, another post-apocalyptic novel, just what the world was waiting for!” kind of way. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the reception so far.

A former BookPage editor, Eliza Borné is now the Managing Editor of the Oxford American

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Station Eleven.

Author photo by Dese'Rae L. Stage.

In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel envisions the world after a major flu pandemic has wiped out most of the population, though the themes in the book feel more timeless than typical for the post-apocalyptic genre. (What makes a fulfilling life? Is art worth saving when there’s so little left on earth?) We caught up with St. John Mandel about her suspenseful and intelligent new book.

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