Freya Sachs

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Appalachia is a place that’s often ignored, forgotten or written over. When the region does become the subject of a book, as rarely as that may be, it’s frequently misrepresented. Barbara Kingsolver brings a notably different energy from her previous work to Demon Copperhead, a novel that dwells in the challenges of impoverished southern Appalachian communities and honors the ways in which our landscapes shape us. She does all this through a tremendous narrative voice, one so sharp and fresh as to overwhelm the reader’s senses.

In many ways, Demon Copperhead is a novel of survival—of finding one’s way through the mess of it all and living with dignity. Demon is born into poverty with only his teenage mother to call family, though she later becomes entangled in an abusive relationship. He faces such challenges as the foster system, child labor and his own desire to find success and a meaning for his life. At each turn, he finds ways to make things work. He’s willing to take risks, he cares about his people and community, and he often looks for the best in a moment, even if he doesn’t fully understand what he’s facing. With each choice, Demon’s spirit comes through, and it is haunting. It’s the reason the pages keep turning, as it’s imperative for the reader to find out how he’s going to get out of the latest mess or scrape, how he’s going to find his family and his own story.

Demon’s story—a tale of growth, challenges, sorrow and surprises—is both a retelling of and in conversation with David Copperfield, Charles Dickens’ novel about an orphan surviving in Victorian England, which was inspired by the author’s early life. Similarly, Kingsolver’s Demon is spunky and full of life as he navigates a complex, uneasy world. But Kingsolver has made this story her own, and what a joy it is to slip into this world and inhabit it, even with all its challenges.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel is inspired by David Copperfield, but she has made this story her own, and what a joy it is to slip into this world and inhabit it, even with all its challenges.
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There’s a certain joy in opening a Kate Atkinson novel—a feeling that every element matters and that each surprise and delight will ultimately make perfect sense. Her latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety, takes us to London in 1926. The shadows of the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic weigh heavily on the world. In response to these recent horrors, London’s nightlife is alive, well and effervescent. 

Enter Nellie Coker—club owner, mother, notorious schemer—who is just about to be released from prison. Everyone is curious to see her, though she rarely lets people get close. London’s Soho neighborhood serves as the backdrop for Nellie’s life, as well as for the lives of her sons and the people who work for her and against her. Each chapter shifts focus, showing a bit of a character’s story, a glimpse of an encounter, a fragment of a person trying to exist in a complex world. We even get a fascinating look at characters who work in law enforcement. 

Slowly, these moments overlap. Secrets, stories, debts and more come to the surface. As the fragments of the novel coalesce, readers witness interconnection, reverberations and consequences. Patience is required to see this puzzle through to its end, but the long game pays off, and there’s magic in seeing the whole unexpected picture. 

There’s also pleasure in how Atkinson seamlessly integrates historical figures and moments into her story. Nellie Coker is a fictionalized version of “Night Club Queen” Kate Meyrick, but the novel moves beyond its inspiration, allowing the imaginative possibilities to guide the tale. Other cultural and literary figures are bandied about in conversation, which firmly establishes the novel’s time and place.

The history and setting add nuance to Shrines of Gaiety, but Atkinson’s characters and their choices, curiosities and corruptions keep the story unfolding, making the resolution worth every second. 

CORRECTION 10/25/2022: An earlier version of this review listed the incorrect year for the flu pandemic, which occurred in 1918.

Patience is required to see Kate Atkinson's latest puzzle through to its end, but the long game pays off, and there's magic in seeing the whole unexpected picture.
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What does it mean for a story’s setting to really act as an additional character? It can’t just be a well-defined place where players act out their roles. Rather, it must feel like an extra layer where secrets might be kept—and possibly revealed. An apartment building on Mallow Island, South Carolina, beautifully illustrates this principle in Sarah Addison Allen’s sixth novel, Other Birds.

Zoey never felt at home with her father and stepmother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so after turning 18, she moves to the island to live in the apartment left by her late mother. Zoey finds herself at the Dellawisp, a quirky old building that hosts a flock of nosy, noisy birds for which it is named. So, too, has it become a home for a number of interesting people. From Zoey’s artist neighbor, Charlotte, to the property manager, Frasier, each tenant of the Dellawisp is haunted by ghosts—of who they were, whom they love, pasts they don’t understand or want to flee. In time, each resident seeks to be understood, to build connections with one another and to understand how their lives are intertwined.

Magical elements are hewn into the marrow of Other Birds. Ghosts and birds—imagined or real, but all mysterious—guide the meandering cast, allowing opportunities for joyful circumstances. The fictional dellawisps—curious, loud and loitering—shape both the setting and how the characters interact within it. Zoey even has a bird named Pigeon that only she can see. Pigeon prods and cajoles Zoey, helping her grow.

If you’re looking for a bit of mystery, whimsical characters and a keen sense of place, Other Birds offers all these delights and more. Allen immerses readers in this island world, as well as in the process of self-discovery, the experiences of being haunted and the gift of surrendering to what we can and cannot control.

If you're looking for a bit of mystery, whimsical characters and a keen sense of place, Other Birds offers all these delights and more.
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As a longtime teacher of American literature, I find myself with an aversion to novels that claim to be the next American epic in the tradition of John Steinbeck, particularly when they’re about World War II. These novels, purporting to be the next necessary heart-wrenching tale of wartime heroism, are seemingly everywhere, but rarely do they live up to expectations. Properties of Thirst defies, dispels and demolishes those expectations and biases in the best way. 

Centered on the bombing of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath, Marianne Wiggins’ masterful novel is a story of land and water, of family, home and connection. For years, the Los Angeles Water Department has impinged upon Rocky Rhodes’ ranch. He’s maintained the property, fought for it and made it a home for his children—twins Sunny and Stryker—as they mourn their mother’s death. 

As Stryker heads to war just before the bombing at Pearl Harbor, the Rhodes’ fiercely protected land becomes neighbor to a Japanese incarceration facility. Schiff, a Jewish man from the Department of the Interior, arrives to oversee the project. He finds himself intrigued by Sunny, and their lives twine and overlap over the course of the novel. 

It’s a challenge to probe such a dark chapter of American history while properly doing justice to the ways that government policies impact both people and the landscape. The novel’s title, Properties of Thirst, introduces an extended metaphor for this exploration: Each section opens with a property of thirst (“the first property of thirst is the element of surprise,” “the ninth property of thirst is submersion,” etc.), framing the novel’s world as one where water is scarce and desire is rampant. As Wiggins uses this lens to explore questions about our history, readers won’t be able to look away. 

Wiggins’ characters are raw and honest; they’re layered and human and fully realized people, from the ways they learn to communicate through their memories of traditions, food and holidays, to the connections they make through literature, particularly that of the Transcendentalists, those purveyors of idealism and individualism. 

Wiggins’ writing, which can be fragmented or polished depending on the page, opens up microscopic universes and sprawling landscapes alike. It’s a joy to read. The opening line, “You can’t save what you don’t love,” echoes throughout the novel, grounding and justifying the reader’s journey toward a better understanding of what that love is and the power it holds. 

In the novel’s afterword, readers learn that Properties of Thirst was completed after Wiggins’ stroke in 2016. While sitting in the author’s hospital room, her daughter, Lara Porzak, read the unfinished manuscript aloud, hoping that her mother’s “words could and would heal her brain, somehow creating a parallel existence: her shadow self living a shadow life reading her former self’s words.” Over time, the author, her daughter and editor David Ulin brought this book to the world, and in this backstory of creative collaboration, we witness the real process of saving what is loved. We are lucky, as readers, to experience the result.

Properties of Thirst was completed after the author's stroke in 2016, through a process of creative collaboration between Marianne Wiggins, her daughter, and editor David Ulin. We are lucky to witness and experience the result.
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What does it mean to be a family? Why do people adopt children? How does a person choose to be, or not be, a parent? When a novel asks questions such as these, there’s often a singular instance or moment that provides an answer, or at the very least, a primary lens through which the possibilities are considered. The beauty of Eleanor Brown’s third novel is that she positions these questions in conversation, asking the how, why and what through the stories of several parents. We see many different choices and the ramifications of each.

The family in Any Other Family is constructed on its own terms: As the novel opens, four siblings live with three sets of parents. Each child was born to the same young woman, who chose open adoptions, enabling the children to maintain relationships not only with her but also with each other. The whole family is committed to raising the children with regular gatherings for Sunday dinners and holidays. And now, for the first time, they’re all taking a two-week family vacation, during which time they’ll learn to interact in new ways, encounter unexpected challenges and be forced, again, to consider how they form a family and what, exactly, that might mean.

The novel unfolds through the alternating perspectives of the three adoptive mothers, revealing their strengths and challenges with equal care. Brown’s tenderness toward these women, as well as the fathers, their children and the birth mother and father, draws readers toward empathy as well, as we feel our way into the complexities and nuances of the characters’ seemingly impossible choices. Empathy functions differently when examples are iterative, and one of the greatest rewards of reading Brown’s novel is the ability to engage with a multiplicity of perspectives.

There’s joy to be found in the struggle, and Any Other Family offers a thoughtful space to experience this truth.

There’s joy to be found in the struggle, and Eleanor Brown’s novel about an unusual adoptive family is a thoughtful exploration of this truth.
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Elif Batuman’s Either/Or is a delightful invitation to reunite with Selin by picking up her adventures where we left off in The Idiot. Now a sophomore at Harvard University, Selin continues to explore, meander and wonder throughout the autumn of 1996, the spring of ’97 and the summer that follows.

Selin’s voice is notably more mature, more reflective and perhaps more droll, and yet she’s still true to herself as she tries to figure out who, exactly, that self is and can be. She attempts to make sense of the previous summer—her travels in Hungary, her time with her crush, Ivan, and his strangeness and distance, and all the many experiences she’s lived but doesn’t yet understand—and searches for guidance through the works assigned for her literature class, including The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard and more.

As Either/Or moves through the year, Selin begins to live actively rather than reflexively; she develops agency, and her choices have power. As she shows an increasing awareness of and engagement with the world, she starts to move out of her novels and into her own self.

Readers will find the tensions of history and present-day politics difficult to miss while reading Either/Or: Russian literature is a strong influence in Selin’s life, and her on-campus job is at the Ukrainian Research Institute. The 1990s technology is a throwback and a joy, and it’s fascinating to consider the ways that email and the internet have changed and shaped everything in our world, from relationships to travel. There’s humor in the lived experiences of parties, classes, alcohol and sex, and Batuman’s balancing of all these elements is remarkable.

Our present moment will change, and technology will continue to evolve, but undoubtedly Selin’s voice will remain a gem.

Selin, hero of Elif Batuman's The Idiot, returns with a voice that is more mature, reflective and droll as she starts to move out of her novels and into her own self.
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Imagine an octopus, trapped in an aquarium: What might he notice, share, taunt and attempt? In Remarkably Bright Creatures, first-time author Shelby Van Pelt asks such questions about life in a tank—and outside of it.

Each evening, recently widowed Tova Sullivan methodically and meticulously works as a cleaner at the Sowell Bay Aquarium. Staying active sustains her, as she is still reeling from her son’s mysterious disappearance many years ago, when he was 18. Tova begins to form a cautious bond with Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus who lives in the aquarium and sneaks out to explore the other tanks and corners of the building. As Marcellus and Tova become increasingly attuned to and curious about each other, he notices details and secrets that help her find a new direction and purpose.

Remarkably Bright Creatures introduces other narrators and perspectives that are seemingly disconnected from Tova and Marcellus, albeit still engaging enough to propel the story forward. The chapters are short, making it easy for readers to dive into each subsequent voice, wondering what secrets will be uncovered. It’s a delight to piece the many stories together.

While the individual characters—human and cephalopod alike—are charming and complex, Remarkably Bright Creatures also emphasizes the importance of community. Locations such as the aquarium, a grocery store, a camper and the Sowell Bay area bring people together, providing spaces to foster conversation, gossip and curiosity. As everyday lives overlap, the reader wonders if crushes will be requited, if families will find each other and if estrangements will end. Will Tova learn more about what happened to her son? And what does Marcellus know?

As Van Pelt’s zippy, fun-to-follow prose engages at every turn, readers will find themselves rooting for the many characters, hoping that they’ll find whatever it is they seek: answers to mysteries, family, joy. Each character is profoundly human, with flaws and eccentricities crafted with care. But what makes Van Pelt’s novel most charming and joyful is the tender friendship between species, and the ways Tova and Marcellus make each other ever more remarkable and bright.

As Shelby Van Pelt’s zippy, fun-to-follow prose engages at every turn, readers will find themselves rooting for her many characters—human and cephalopod alike.
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Annie Hartnett’s second novel, Unlikely Animals, is striking and richly imagined, with a voice that is wholly its own. The story is told by the collective dead of a small New Hampshire town, with all the boundaries and unknowns that are inherent when your storytellers are buried in a cemetery.

The town’s dead are compelled to speak when Emma Starling returns home after a failed attempt at medical school. Although she was born with a natural ability to heal, the ability seems to have deserted her, leaving her unable to help her father, Clive, who has a brain disease. Despite his tremors, Clive is determined to solve the mystery of Emma’s best friend, Crystal, who has disappeared.

In many ways, Emma’s return home is messy; her brother is recovering from an opioid addiction, and Clive has begun to frequently and unpredictably hallucinate the existence of various animals, as well as the ghost of long-dead naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes. Layer in Emma’s new job as a substitute fifth grade teacher and other delightful moments, and you have the makings of a propulsive, inviting tale.

Emma and her family are endearing, charming characters to observe. They’re flawed, searching and struggling to be seen. Although Unlikely Animals deals with many issues—aging parents, the opioid epidemic, life in rural New England, family dreams and pressures—it does so with intention and care, never heavy-handedness. The magic of Hartnett’s novel stems from the balance of these weighty topics with the story’s intrinsic playfulness, and in sections that explore the myth and history of Baynes and his domesticated animals.

Ultimately, the story of Unlikely Animals belongs to the animals themselves, from Clive’s hallucinatory rabbits to Emma’s adopted dog. They remind us of wisdom beyond human experience, offering moments of clear-eyed joy as Emma finds her way and strives to help others do the same.

The magic of Annie Hartnett’s second novel is the balance of heavy topics with the story’s intrinsic playfulness.
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Imagine that countless statues all over New York City share the likeness of one young, beautiful woman. In The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis, that woman is Lillian Carter, who, after her mother’s death of the Spanish flu, ends up working at the Frick mansion, which is now home to the revered art museum of the same name. The novel moves between Lillian’s story and that of Veronica, a model who, nearly 50 years later, finds herself following a mystery via secret messages in the mansion. 

In each of your novels, architectural history comes so clearly alive! Tell us a bit about your research process. Did this new book challenge or evolve your process in any way? Did it lead you anywhere especially surprising? 
When it comes to research, the first thing I do is get a good look inside the building and then interview experts on the subject and the era. For The Magnolia Palace, I was able to get a wonderful behind-the-scenes tour of the Frick Collection in January 2020, from the bowling alley in the basement up to the top floor where the servants slept. 

Usually I’d make several return trips as I write the first draft, but the city went into lockdown, making that impossible. So I was thrilled to discover that the Frick’s website includes a wonderful floor plan with a 360-degree view of each of the public rooms. If I needed to check out what artwork was above the fireplace in the library, for example, I could find the answer with just a couple of clicks. Thank goodness, as otherwise I would’ve been really stuck.

Read our review: ‘The Magnolia Palace’ by Fiona Davis

When you pass by or enter an incredible old building, what’s the first thing you look for?
I’m always curious as to what has changed over time. How does the building compare to the one that was originally constructed? How has the neighborhood changed over the decades? It’s those contrasts that help me decide what time periods might work best for a novel. As I walk by, I can’t help wondering about all of the people who walked its halls, all of the ghosts that remain. 

Obviously a sense of place plays a huge role in your work, from libraries and hotels to mansions and museums—and of course, the whole city of New York. What details do you seek out to bring these spaces into such vivid relief?
I’m always looking for the strange details, the ones that are fun to describe because they will surprise the reader. It might be the grimace of a gargoyle over a doorway or the catwalks that span the enormous windows of Grand Central that end up drawing my attention and making it into the novel. We New Yorkers often think we know these places so well, but it’s amazing how little we “see” as we wander the streets.

How did you decide on the title The Magnolia Palace?
Titles are tough for my novels, as I’m looking for a title that’s not too on the nose but which describes the location nicely and has resonance within the plot. That’s asking a lot. Choosing titles for each book is a team effort involving my editor and my agent, and they’re often the ones who have the best ideas. 

For this novel, I realized the gorgeous magnolia trees outside the Frick would be a nice touchstone, one that I could bring into the story with the search for the (fictional) Magnolia diamond. And Dutton’s art department came up with that gorgeous cover with the magnolia blossoms—it was perfect. 

“I can’t help wondering about all of the people who walked its halls, all of the ghosts that remain.”

The art in this novel is impressively catalogued. How did you choose which pieces to highlight in the novel? What do you think they add to the story? 
The scavenger hunt scenes, with clues that lead to several pieces in the Frick art collection, were really fun to write. I tended to choose works of art that have interesting backstories, ones that further illuminate what’s going on with the characters on the page. For example, the woman who sat for the George Romney painting that’s included in the scavenger hunt led a scandalous life as a mistress and a muse. When Veronica comes upon it and learns the history, it deepens how she feels about being made into an object of art as well. 

The Magnolia Palace cover

I love the dimensions of these women—Lillian and Veronica, as well as Helen Frick, daughter of Henry—and wonder how you built the complexities of each of them. Where did you find inspiration for these women? And more broadly, how do you choose what types of women will occupy and make their marks on the buildings at the heart of your novels?
As I research, I’m looking for women from history who accomplished great things but have since been forgotten. The inspiration for Lillian came from the carving of a nude woman over the entrance to the Frick. The model who posed for it was Audrey Munson, who achieved great fame in the 1910s but met a tragic end. She was gorgeous and successful and then suddenly an outcast, and I knew I wanted to include her story in the narrative. 

The more I read about Helen Frick, the more I adored her. She was acerbic and smart, yet she was mocked in the press for her eccentricities. As a writer, I wondered what would’ve happened if Audrey and Helen crossed paths in real life, and the plot developed from there. 

Then, once I decided to set part of the book in the 1960s, I thought it would be fun to have a character who is also a model, as a way to compare and contrast how women’s roles have been valued (or not) over time, and Veronica bubbled up out of that.

“We New Yorkers often think we know these places so well, but it’s amazing how little we ‘see’ as we wander the streets.”

What is your process for writing braided narratives? How do you know when they’re working well together?
Once I know who the main characters are, I brainstorm scenes and create each timeline separately. Braiding them together is the toughest part, as each novel contains an element of mystery, and I have to make sure I don’t give away a clue too soon in one timeline and thereby destroy the tension in the other. 

It’s always a mess at first, but once I have it down on paper, I’m eager to start writing the first draft. I write one timeline first all the way through (usually the older one), then the other, and then do a read-through to see if they work together. There’s still a lot of tweaking to be done, but by then the structure is usually pretty solid.  

What is your ultimate day in New York City? Which museums or special places are especially dear to you?
I’ve called the city home for 35 years now, and it’s full of wonderful places. The Frick Collection is dear to me, to be sure. I also love grabbing a pastry at Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, or heading to the Campbell Bar at Grand Central for a cocktail. Hitting all three in one day would be a dream. 

What are you reading now?
I’m excited to start Ann Patchett’s latest book of essays, These Precious Days. She’s such a champion of authors and booksellers and is masterful working in both fiction and nonfiction. She’s probably as close to an author superhero as there is.

Photo of Fiona Davis by Deborah Feingold

Bestselling author Fiona Davis transforms New York City’s architectural history into winning fiction, and her latest, The Magnolia Palace, builds upon the secrets of the Frick Collection in a delightful blend of emotion and adventure.
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When I was a kid, I had fantasies of what life must be like to live inside a museum. What stories and secrets of art might I discover? In The Magnolia Palace, Fiona Davis textures such imaginings, setting her novel inside the Frick mansion and alternating between two storylines in 1919 and 1966.

The novel opens in a moment of loss: A famous model named Lillian Carter, who has posed for countless sculptures that adorn New York City landmarks, loses her mother to the Spanish flu in 1919. While Lillian is trying to navigate the complexities of the world, she finds herself caught in an imbroglio, and she runs from the scandal straight to the Frick family home. There she becomes the private secretary to Helen Frick, the challenging daughter of the man who would later transform his mansion into a museum.

Lillian’s story unfolds alongside that of Veronica Weber, a British model in the 1960s who, during a photo shoot at the Frick Collection, gets snowed in and finds herself on quite an adventure.

Within this home and museum, Davis builds a whole world that’s rife with secrets and stories. The novel moves at an engaging pace, with questions waiting to be answered at each turn. Davis knows exactly how to structure a story and how to switch between timelines; even if sometimes you aren’t quite ready to make the jump, you must, in order to find out how it all connects.

A captivating story whose characters are richly drawn, The Magnolia Palace pays particular attention to those who might go unnoticed: the deaf private secretary, the museum intern, the organ player. We discover their private lives and public exposures, which reveal the daily messiness of human lives, the construction of the self and the truths we try so hard to hide.

Bestselling author Fiona Davis discusses her latest novel, the delights of the Frick and her ideal day in New York City.

Bestselling author Fiona Davis builds upon the secrets of the Frick Collection in a delightful blend of emotion and adventure.
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Spanning the globe from a night market in Taiwan to New York City, Los Angeles and many places in between, Jean Chen Ho’s novel-in-stories weaves together the experiences of two young women, Fiona and Jane. We see their lives unfold together and apart, amid challenges with their parents, flirtations, relationships and financial concerns. Through it all, Fiona and Jane navigate the complexities of their friendship, allowing it to grow, change and reemerge with time.

Fiona and Jane is comprised of chapters that alternate between Jane’s first-person narration and Fiona’s third person. Jane describes growing up and navigating her sense of self, and she ruminates on the ways that her friendship with Fiona grounds and challenges her. Meanwhile, Fiona’s chapters feel more distant for their external narration. The decision to differentiate the two Taiwanese American women’s sections in this way becomes increasingly interesting and important as the story progresses. In fact, it becomes evident that this structure is essential to how the story must be told.

Time is a fascinating factor in the novel as well. The narrative unfurls in the present while moving the reader into snippets of backstory, filling in gaps at just the right moments. Ho also moves us through and across physical and cultural landscapes, revealing how a person can feel both resonance with and distance from one’s community and self.

Ultimately, though, Ho’s characters do the most compelling work. Fiona and Jane—both earnest, curious and heart-full—epitomize the realities of growing up in America as young women, as immigrants, as Asian Americans. Their arcs show how families complicate one’s life while also enriching it, how friends can become a found family, and how each choice can echo in and reflect a person’s whole life.

By the book’s end, readers will feel as though they carry some part of these women with them, as if Fiona and Jane are our friends, as if their stories might yet overlap with our own.

After reading Jean Chen Ho’s novel-in-stories, readers will feel as though they carry some part of Fiona and Jane with them.

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