Harvey Freedenberg

Taking on questions of race, sexual identity or class in a work of barely 200 pages would be an ambitious project for any writer. Asali Solomon’s second novel, The Days of Afrekete, tackles all three with insight, wit and grace—a tribute to her considerable talent.

At the core of the novel, whose title refers to a character in Audre Lorde’s Zami, is the story of Liselle Belmont and Selena Octave, two Black women who meet at Bryn Mawr College in the 1990s and enter into a brief, intense relationship; each ascribes the fault for its end to the other. Even at a distance of some 20 years, it’s clear that neither woman has been able to shed the memory of their four months as lovers, scenes of which Solomon sketches in vivid, economical flashbacks.

As their college years recede, Liselle’s and Selena’s lives proceed in opposite directions. Selena undergoes a series of psychiatric hospitalizations and moves through a succession of downwardly mobile jobs. Liselle, in contrast, marries Winn Anderson, a white lawyer from a wealthy Connecticut family whose primary campaign against an incumbent Black state representative has ended in defeat, a disappointment compounded by Winn’s entanglement with an unscrupulous real estate developer that has made him the subject of an FBI investigation.

Most of the novel’s present-day action unfolds at a dinner party hosted by Liselle and Winn at their 150-year-old home in an upscale neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia. The racially mixed gathering, intended to thank Winn’s core supporters, subtly dissects Liselle’s profound unease over the state of her marriage alongside her almost comical discomfort in the presence of Xochitl, the highly educated daughter of Liselle’s Latina cleaning woman.

Solomon doesn’t offer a tidy resolution to the story, but her novel doesn’t demand one. The Days of Afrekete’s strength lies in its well-drawn characters and its realistic portrait of how old desires sometimes refuse to remain buried.

With insight, wit and grace, Asali Solomon’s second novel offers a realistic portrait of how old desires sometimes refuse to remain buried.

How does one sum up the arc of a long life? That’s the intriguing question Joshua Ferris poses in A Calling for Charlie Barnes, a poignant, bitingly funny exploration of how a life that’s riddled with defeat may turn out, after all, to be profoundly meaningful.

Inspired by the death of Ferris’ own father in 2014, the novel tells the story of Charlie Barnes, nicknamed “Steady Boy,” an investment adviser struggling in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse whose ambition is matched only by the number and magnitude of his professional and personal debacles. Charlie is a bundle of contradictions—an ethical money manager in a world of charlatans, and someone whose endlessly inventive mind conjures up bizarre moneymaking schemes that are distinctive only for their consistent failures, like a flying toupee called the Original Doolander or the Clown in Your Town, a franchised fleet of party clowns. 

But when, at age 68, Charlie is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he’s forced to confront his mortality and come to terms with a chaotic family life that has included five marriages—four of which ended badly—and has caused the bitter estrangement of his two eldest children. His youngest son, Jake, the only Barnes sibling who remains close to his father, is a novelist who takes on the project of chronicling Charlie’s “perfectly failed life.” From moments of rollicking humor to episodes of deep pathos, Jake strives to capture his father’s utterly ordinary, strikingly tumultuous biography with as much fidelity to the facts as he’s able to muster while keeping it “honest, but respectable.”

In addition to its autofictional component, A Calling for Charlie Barnes contains a strong metafictional element, as Jake comments frequently and incisively on the challenges of storytelling, even assuming the mantle of unreliable narrator almost with a sense of pride: “Like reliability exists anywhere anymore,” he writes, “like that’s still a thing,” reminding the reader of “the power you have when you control the narrative.”  

Ferris’ control of his own narrative is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be prepared for the frequent wicked curveballs he delivers with evident zest. A Calling for Charlie Barnes has plot twists as manifold as its protagonist’s cruelly dashed dreams, but when Steady Boy’s story reaches its end, it’s a reminder of how little we know about the ones we love and the fact that even the humblest life story encompasses unfathomable depths.

Joshua Ferris’ control of his narrative is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be prepared for frequent wicked curveballs.

Award-winning Israeli writer David Grossman’s More Than I Love My Life is a complex novel about the secrets that scar three generations of women for a lifetime.

Upon her 90th birthday, family matriarch Vera Novak reunites with her daughter, Nina, after five years of separation. Both Vera and Nina have committed the almost unpardonable act of abandoning young daughters—Vera when Nina was 6, and Nina when her own daughter, Gili, was even younger. The circumstances surrounding Vera’s and Nina’s departures are complex, slowly revealed and come to dominate all three women’s emotional lives.

When Nina, who has spent several years on a tiny island between Lapland and the North Pole, announces that she’s in the early stages of dementia, she asks Gili, a writer and filmmaker now approaching her 40s, and Gili’s father, Rafael, formerly a film director himself, to record Vera’s story. The novel reaches its climax when the foursome journeys to the island of Goli Otok, off the coast of Croatia, once home to a notorious labor camp and reeducation center for opponents of the Tito regime in the former Yugoslavia. Vera was sent there after the death of her husband under circumstances she’s withheld from Nina all her life. 

In harrowing passages that alternate with the present action, Vera recalls two months of her nearly three-year imprisonment when she was marched daily to a cliff top and forced to stand in the blazing sun, her only companion a sapling she shaded with her body.

Vera, Nina and Gili are memorable characters, each suffering in different but equally profound ways. Grossman effectively inhabits the consciousnesses of these women and doesn’t spare the reader any of their considerable emotional pain. He’s a sympathetic if unfailingly honest chronicler of their anguish. A reader doesn’t have to identify with the particulars of the women’s stories to appreciate how the consequences of fateful choices can reverberate down through the generations.

David Grossman is a sympathetic if unfailingly honest chronicler of the anguish of three generations of women.

Miranda Fitch, the protagonist of Mona Awad’s third novel, All’s Well, might best be described—to borrow the title of the 1988 Pedro Almodóvar film—as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A professor of theater studies at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, she’s laboring mightily to stage a student production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which she thinks of as a “problem play,” one that’s “neither a tragedy nor a comedy. Both, always both.”

Apart from a rebellious cast, Miranda’s primary obstacle is unremitting pain from an injury she sustained when she tumbled from a stage during her promising but brief acting career. The resulting hip injury led to serious back problems unrelieved by the ministrations of a string of doctors and physical therapists, transforming Miranda, divorced and not yet 40 years old, into a pill-gobbling automaton who has abandoned all hope of her own happy ending.

All’s Well quickly leaves behind this depressingly naturalistic scenario to veer into the realm of fabulism when Miranda encounters three mysterious men in a local pub. The trio, who inexplicably have intimate knowledge of her life and struggles, grace her with what seems like a miracle cure. But as she discovers, even healing can come at a price.

Awad efficiently portrays both Miranda’s confrontation with chronic pain and the slowly evaporating patience of the people in her orbit (her ex-husband, Paul; colleague and friend Grace; and Mark, the last in a chain of physical therapists) with her lack of improvement. Anyone who’s been similarly afflicted or knows someone who has will recognize this scenario. Awad leaves it to the reader to assess how much of Miranda’s mental turmoil is the product of an inexplicable but desperately welcome truce in her battle with pain, and how much flows from her encounter with supernatural forces. It’s a wild, at times over-the-top ride, but like Shakespeare’s eponymous work, there’s both pathos and humor in this story of how we suffer and the ways in which we’re healed.

Like Shakespeare’s eponymous work, there’s pathos and humor in this story of how we suffer and the ways in which we’re healed.

Though it’s been eclipsed in the minds of many Americans by the turmoil surrounding Donald Trump’s dual impeachments, the Watergate scandal continues to reverberate in the nation’s political consciousness nearly five decades later. Michael Dobbs’ King Richard: Nixon and Watergate: An American Tragedy is a balanced but frank account of a critical period in Richard Nixon’s downfall and a valuable addition to the literature of this dramatic era in American political history.

Dobbs draws extensively on material from the infamous White House taping system, not fully made public until 2013, and focuses on the 100-day period between Nixon’s second inauguration—following his reelection in one of the greatest landslides in American political history—and the end of April 1973. That turbulent interval, which Dobbs meticulously documents on an almost day-by-day basis, featured frantic, failing efforts to hide the roles Nixon and his inner circle played in the illegal political intelligence operation that surfaced with the arrest of the Watergate burglars on June 17, 1972. It culminated in the departure of Nixon’s most powerful aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, which signaled the collapse of the cover-up that ultimately resulted in Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974.

Nixon was a complex figure, and Dobbs offers a relatively sympathetic portrait here, summing him up as a “self-made man with a loner’s disposition” who was “personally responsible for both his rise and fall.” There are no heroes in this story of lawlessness and corruption, but it’s clear that White House counsel John Dean’s decision to cooperate with prosecutors, if only out of a savvy instinct for self-preservation, was indispensable in finally exposing the cover-up, “an edifice of lies, evasions, and half-truths incapable of sustaining serious challenge.”

Whether readers share Dobbs’ view that “only the most hard-hearted of critics will fail to feel any empathy for the pain of a man whose dreams turned to nightmares as a result of his own mistakes” may depend on their political ideology. Whatever their conclusion, it will be better informed after reading this engrossing book.

King Richard is an engrossing account of Richard Nixon’s downfall and a valuable addition to the literature of this dramatic era in American political history.

Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew couldn’t be more distinct from her first novel, Elmet, a finalist for the 2017 Booker Prize. But this lively story of class conflict in contemporary London offers more evidence of Mozley’s talent and versatility, marking her as a writer whose work promises both thoughtful entertainment and surprises.

At the heart of the novel is the city’s Soho neighborhood, where most of the ensemble cast’s members live and work. Agatha Howard, whose sizable inheritance supports the adage about all great fortunes arising from great crimes, has decided to renovate one of her extensive real estate holdings. But the neighborhood has long been home to London’s sex trade, so Agatha’s plan sparks a clash with a determined group of sex workers based there, led by Nigerian-born Precious and her older companion, Tabitha.

While Agatha deploys her wealth and connections to enlist a politically ambitious police officer in her plan, the women take to the streets to summon popular support for their cause, even as they recognize they’re “hardly going to get Bob Geldof and Bono fighting in [their] corner.” Mozley subtly wires these characters and others, including a semiretired mob enforcer, a modestly successful actor and an ex-drug addict whose disappearance heightens police pressure on the district, into a complex network of unpredictable and intriguing connections. 

Whether the scene is a déclassé Mayfair men’s club or a fetid cellar that affords refuge for a collection of homeless people, Mozley brings her diverse settings to life, as well as the clashing desires and ambitions of her colorful characters. Hot Stew’s title is an apt one, as Mozley consistently stirs in tasty ingredients and exciting spices, and keeps raising the temperature all the way to its startling climax. 

Hot Stew’s title is an apt one, as Fiona Mozley consistently stirs in tasty ingredients and keeps raising the temperature all the way to its startling climax.

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