Rebecca Shapiro

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When April, Celia, Bree and Sally arrive at Smith College in the late 1990s and move onto the same freshman hall, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll end up as friends. Celia’s a boy-crazy Catholic schoolgirl, ready for adventure; Bree is a sweet Southern belle—a Smith legacy—with an engagement ring on her finger and a pile of family pressure hanging over her; Sally, a wealthy girl from Boston, is still reeling from her mother’s death the previous summer; and April, who seems to fit in best, is an angry feminist from Chicago with unshaven legs and a chip on her shoulder.

But remarkably, they do get along, supporting each other through the daily ups and downs of college life, the unique issues of an all-women’s school and the more substantial clouds that hang over each of them. For Sally, it’s an intense and damaging relationship with a professor; for Celia, a trip off-campus that shatters her trust in men; for Bree it’s the end of an engagement, and an unlikely new love interest; and for April, a deepening commitment to a dangerous cause.

Four years after graduation, the group reunites for Sally’s wedding. Celia, Bree, Sally and April come together on Smith’s campus looking for the same kind of comfortable rapport that they once had. As they reminisce about their college days, though, ugly feelings are revealed, and the once unbreakable quartet seems more vulnerable than ever. But then something unthinkable happens to one member, forcing them again to find the strength in these friendships—the most important of their lives.

Taking a page from Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, J. Courtney Sullivan has honed in on so much of the utter anguish of adolescence and young adulthood. Her characters are brilliantly flawed, intensely realistic, thoroughly compassionate and often incredibly funny. And, while a plot twist in the middle of the book feels a bit unrealistic, it also adds suspense and depth to a more classic coming-of-age tale. With this warm, insightful debut, Sullivan has positioned herself as a voice to watch.

Rebecca Shapiro writes best from her hammock in Brooklyn, New York. 

When April, Celia, Bree and Sally arrive at Smith College in the late 1990s and move onto the same freshman hall, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll end up as friends. Celia’s a boy-crazy Catholic schoolgirl, ready for adventure; Bree is a sweet Southern belle—a Smith legacy—with an engagement ring on her finger and a […]
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It’s a common comparison: Your odds of being struck by lightning are far better than those of winning the grand jackpot in the lottery. But they’re still quite low, at around one in one million for someone living in the U.S. in any given year (the odds increase over a lifetime). Man Alive!, an intriguing novel by Mary Kay Zuravleff, tells the tale of one man who beats these odds with dramatic consequences.

Dr. Owen Lerner is a successful psychiatrist with a workaholic-like focus on his practice, specializing in children with neurodevelopment disorders such as autism. Summer weeks spent at a Delaware beach house with his family are one of the few times he allows himself to unwind. It’s on the last evening of one such vacation, when he and his wife and three children are on their way to dinner, that the odds of a lightning strike instantly becomes 100% for Owen. As he places a quarter in the parking meter, all the proper elements align . . . and he is literally knocked off his feet.

The Lerner family’s post-lightning-strike implosion makes up the meat of this tale. And meat actually plays a large role, as Owen, in his recovery, becomes obsessed with the art of barbecue—likely as a reaction to the odor of his own burning flesh following the hit. It isn’t just barbecue that consumes him; the euphoria he experiences immediately after being struck leads to a “chasing the dragon” type journey as Owen strives not only to explain those feelings but to bring them back. Suddenly he is as “neuroatypical” as the patients he’s devoted his life to, and this irony is not lost on him.

Owen’s family watches his transformation with both fascination and fear. Wife Toni’s resentment at having to become an instant caretaker to her physically and mentally altered husband is realistically portrayed, although her angst-ridden passages can become tiresome. His college-age twin sons, Ricky and Will, have their own traumatized reactions: Will in particular experiences a downslide that sometimes strains credulity. Teenage daughter Brooke displays a mix of guilt, revulsion and adolescent self-centeredness that is on the mark, but a subplot focused on her unhealthy high-school romance seems extraneous.

Yes, the Lerner family members can be annoying; but who among us can’t relate to irritating relatives? It’s likely that readers will want to complete the journey with a family that, despite their extraordinary circumstances, may remind them very much of their own.

It’s a common comparison: Your odds of being struck by lightning are far better than those of winning the grand jackpot in the lottery. But they’re still quite low, at around one in one million for someone living in the U.S. in any given year (the odds increase over a lifetime). Man Alive!, an intriguing […]
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There have been countless novels over the years about the rampant wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States during the 19th and early 20th century. So many, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to imagine a story on the subject that feels unique. Anna Solomon’s fascinating debut, about a mail-order bride sent to join her Orthodox husband in rural South Dakota, is a rare, stunning exception.

Minna Losk is a 16-year-old orphan living in 1880s Odessa when she answers an ad from a Russian-American man looking for a wife. She, like so many others, dreams of an urban, cosmopolitan life and of opportunities unheard of for a Jew in Cossack-ridden Russia. But when Minna arrives, she is whisked off not to New York or Chicago but “Sodokota,” a barren, desolate territory far from civilization. Minna’s betrothed, too, is not what she expects, but rather, a rigidly religious man more than twice her age, with two teenaged sons in tow. With literally nowhere else to turn, Minna must learn to make this fledgling family work under the most trying circumstances.

The Little Bride is a riveting portrait of a community not often documented in history.  Shunned both by their mother country and by the American Jews who had already assimilated into secular life, the first wave of Eastern European Jews who immigrated in the mid-19th century were often forcibly sent to the Great Plains—a narrative now largely eclipsed by the massive wave of immigration that followed shortly after. But this is far more than just a different twist on the same story. Solomon’s prose is bold and often gritty, and she creates complicated, surprising characters that completely defy expectations, displaying the depths of the author’s careful research and rich imagination. 

Rebecca Shapiro writes from Brooklyn.

There have been countless novels over the years about the rampant wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States during the 19th and early 20th century. So many, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to imagine a story on the subject that feels unique. Anna Solomon’s fascinating debut, about a mail-order bride […]
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Literary wisdom has it that it is often easiest to write what you know, but with his debut novel, investment banker Amor Towles couldn’t have strayed farther from his own life. Raised in suburban Boston in the 1970s, he somehow manages to conjure an impeccably detailed, poetically rendered portrayal of the complicated rise of a professional woman in 1930s New York.

On New Year’s Eve, 1937, Katey Kontent and Eve Ross leave their boardinghouse for a night in a Greenwich Village jazz club with nothing but $3 and boundless dreams between them. Brooklyn-bred Katey hails from poor, Russian immigrant stock, trying to rise through the ranks as a secretary in a Wall Street law firm. Stubborn Eve, who comes from Wisconsin money, got her publishing job thanks to family connections, but otherwise is determined to make it on her own. Katey and Eve are best friends, sharing everything from dresses to their boardinghouse bedroom, and they think that nothing could come between them—until the charming, debonair Tinker Grey walks into the bar, and Eve calls dibs.

The novel is governed by the chance encounters and seemingly small moments that end up making a difference in people’s lives—an interesting theme, but one that ultimately undermines the absolutely tremendous tension that Towles builds between Katey, Eve and Tinker. The triangle is shattered early on by an unexpected incident, which is perhaps true to life, but losing such nuanced momentum feels like a shame. Still, Towles’ prose is enormously promising, and Rules of Civility is a worthwhile read just for the pleasure of watching the New York landscape come alive under his pen, from the decadent 21 Club and the grand apartments of the Beresford to the stodgy Chelsea boardinghouses and lively Russian bars on the Lower East Side. 

Literary wisdom has it that it is often easiest to write what you know, but with his debut novel, investment banker Amor Towles couldn’t have strayed farther from his own life. Raised in suburban Boston in the 1970s, he somehow manages to conjure an impeccably detailed, poetically rendered portrayal of the complicated rise of a […]
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Korean-American author Samuel Park grew up listening to his mother’s stories about her life in South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, when the country teetered on the brink of modernity while remaining steeped in centuries of tradition. He sets his intriguing novel in this tumultuous period, introducing a fascinating character whose life is forever changed by one very important decision.

The year is 1960, and in Daegu, Soo-Ja Choi dreams of becoming South Korea’s first woman diplomat. Though she is accepted into the program, her wealthy and overprotective father refuses to let her go, wanting her to marry and start a family instead. Reluctantly, Soo-Ja agrees to marry Min, a suitor who has been relentlessly pursuing her. But two days before the wedding, a handsome acquaintance named Yul asks her to run away with him instead. Fearing that she will disappoint her family, Soo-Ja rejects his offer, but realizes after just one night in her new husband’s home what a grave mistake she has made. Divorce is unthinkable in the still male-dominated society, especially after Soo-Ja gives birth to a daughter who means everything to her, but not a day passes that she doesn’t think of Yul and wonder what might have been if she had married him instead. 

Traversing the South Korean landscape, from the rural fishing village of Pusan to the bustling capital of Seoul, This Burns My Heart is truly a slice of history, capturing a country very much in transition. But more importantly, it is a love story so simple and universal that, in many ways, it could be set anywhere. With complex, sympathetic characters and vibrant, lyrical prose, Park reminds readers about loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, family and, above all, the enduring power of first love.

Read an interview with Samuel Park about This Burns My Heart.

Korean-American author Samuel Park grew up listening to his mother’s stories about her life in South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, when the country teetered on the brink of modernity while remaining steeped in centuries of tradition. He sets his intriguing novel in this tumultuous period, introducing a fascinating character whose life […]
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Author J. Courtney Sullivan made a name for herself in 2009 with a smart, incredibly resonant debut, Commencement, about four unlikely friends during their college years at Smith and the turbulent 20-something years that followed. With her sophomore effort, Sullivan turns from friendships to family, writing with the same warmth and nuance as in Commencement, but pushing her characters further, creating an even more complex and satisfying whole in Maine.

Maine revolves around the Kelleher family, a large Boston Irish-Catholic clan that has been vacationing for nearly 60 years at the same beachfront cottage, which fell into their laps in a bit of uncharacteristic luck. Weather-worn but packed with years of sun-soaked memories, the cottage was once a uniting force for the Kellehers, but in recent years, it seems to have been little more than a nuisance, and the family matriarch is preparing to make a rash decision about its future.

As she did in her first novel, Sullivan oscillates between narrators with a remarkable ease in Maine, capturing the summer from the perspectives of Alice Kelleher; her estranged daughter Kathleen, a recovering alcoholic with a holistic California farm; her revered daughter-in-law Ann Marie, who copes with her fledgling children and disappointing marriage through an obsessive dollhouse habit; and granddaughter Maggie, at a painful crossroads in her own life.

In Sullivan’s hands, the four considerably flawed but deeply sympathetic narrators come to life in a meaningful and believable way. Perhaps even more impressive, though, is Sullivan’s ability to again conjure a place so completely through description and careful attention to detail. Damp, salt-laden air and strong cocktails practically emanate from the pages of this pleasing story, which cements Sullivan’s status as a talented young writer to watch.

Author J. Courtney Sullivan made a name for herself in 2009 with a smart, incredibly resonant debut, Commencement, about four unlikely friends during their college years at Smith and the turbulent 20-something years that followed. With her sophomore effort, Sullivan turns from friendships to family, writing with the same warmth and nuance as in Commencement, but pushing her characters further, creating an even more complex and satisfying whole in Maine.

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Countless children of the 1960s rebelled against their straitlaced parents by turning to rock music, sexual freedom and, perhaps most importantly, drugs. But would such an uninhibited cohort curb the rebellion in their own children, a generation later? In her vibrant debut, a sweeping coming-of-age novel set against the pulsing New York City punk scene of the late 1980s, Eleanor Henderson asks this and much more, bringing to life both a set of achingly real characters and the unique time in which they lived in Ten Thousand Saints.

For Jude Keffy-Horn, adopted at birth by Vermont hippies who later divorced, boredom and drugs are the mainstays of his small-town life. But things take a drastic turn on his 16th birthday, when his best friend, Teddy, dies of an accidental overdose. In desperation, his mother sends Jude to live with his pot-dealing father in the East Village, taking a gamble that it might straighten him out. Oddly, the plot works, as Jude eschews his father’s alternative lifestyle for one of his own—the hardcore, straight-edge punk scene. As Jude weans himself off the vices of his childhood (not just drugs, but also alcohol and even meat), he builds an unconventional but tight-knit family around two friends—Teddy’s older brother, Johnny, a tattoo artist in a hardcore band, and Eliza, a scared prep-school dropout likely carrying Teddy’s baby.

Henderson’s debut is ambitious, and though she has clearly researched extensively, the prose sometimes struggles under the weight of so much detail. But the novel shines when she focus on the characters, whom she writes about with care and affection, digging below rough exteriors to find the source of their anger, frustration, boredom and indifference. From this gritty, often under-the-radar subculture, Henderson culls warmth and humanity, and proves herself at the same time a deft and promising storyteller.

Countless children of the 1960s rebelled against their straitlaced parents by turning to rock music, sexual freedom and, perhaps most importantly, drugs. But would such an uninhibited cohort curb the rebellion in their own children, a generation later? In her vibrant debut, a sweeping coming-of-age novel set against the pulsing New York City punk scene of the late 1980s, Eleanor Henderson asks this and much more.
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Few authors are as synonymous with New York City as Pete Hamill, so it is fitting that the Brooklyn-bred darling of The Post and The Daily News returns with a story as frenetic, complicated, harrowing and alive as his beloved town.

We begin Tabloid City at midnight with Sam Briscoe, an aging editor of a daily newspaper, putting the next day’s afternoon edition to bed. But the night is far from over in the city that never sleeps, and anything could happen before the ink hits the page. In the depths of Brooklyn, a young woman cries out for her mother as she suffers the throes of childbirth alone. A legless veteran of the Iraq War wheels through the Upper East Side looking for a place to sleep. An angry young terrorist plots a desperate, defiant act. A cop heading home to an empty house has the terrible instinct that something is dreadfully wrong. And after an elegant dinner party, a socialite—Sam Briscoe’s girlfriend—and her longtime secretary are ruthlessly murdered.

As the night and following day progress, Hamill weaves these seemingly unrelated stories together in a cohesive narrative, showing both the deep chasms and the uncanny connections between the city’s many threads. He writes with an almost cinematic flair, evoking films like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Paul Haggis’ Crash, and as with those movies, the links in the story can at times feel overwhelmingly coincidental, while characters and neighborhoods border on cliché. But despite these flaws, Hamill is, as always, a consummate storyteller, and his prose vibrates with raw energy. With a little suspension of disbelief, Tabloid City is an exciting, thought-provoking read.

Few authors are as synonymous with New York City as Pete Hamill, so it is fitting that the Brooklyn-bred darling of The Post and The Daily News returns with a story as frenetic, complicated, harrowing and alive as his beloved town. We begin Tabloid City at midnight with Sam Briscoe, an aging editor of a […]
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In 1996, then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton published her iconic book on child-rearing, It Takes a Village, which emphasized the necessity not only of good parenting, but also of unconventional families, of communities coming together to support children and of the many kinds of people that can make all the difference in a child’s life. Rarely has there been a better example of that message than Wrecker, a big-hearted novel about a boy who finds love and acceptance in an unlikely home.

Born in San Francisco in 1965 to a troubled single mother, Wrecker has enough problems early in life to warrant his unconventional name. But when he is just three years old, his mother is sent to jail for such a long time that she won’t be eligible for parole until Wrecker is grown. After a brief stint in the foster system, he is sent to distant relatives deep in rural Humboldt County, California. He arrives scared, angry and wild, barely speaking but constantly running, unable to trust anyone. But soon he finds a family in a group of misfits who had never imagined raising a child—stoic uncle Len, his convalescent wife Meg, and Ruth, Willow, Melody and Johnny Appleseed, the neighbors at Bow Farm who have all left more conventional lives to live together in a commune.

As a novel, Wrecker lacks a certain level of sophistication and complexity. But the author, a foster mother herself, writes with a warmth and compassion that radiates from her pages. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Wrecker as he grows up, and perhaps more importantly, with his family—not only the many who took him in and made sacrifices for his well-being, but also the mother who, despite her mistakes, always loved him and missed so much of the way that he became a man. 

In 1996, then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton published her iconic book on child-rearing, It Takes a Village, which emphasized the necessity not only of good parenting, but also of unconventional families, of communities coming together to support children and of the many kinds of people that can make all the difference in a child’s life. Rarely […]
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Hannah Pittard has big shoes to fill: Her first novel, a dark story of adolescence gone awry, echoes Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides and his own haunting debut, The Virgin Suicides. Like Eugenides, Pittard narrates from the omniscient, plural voice of a group of small-town boys hurt and confused by the mysterious unraveling of girls they thought were, in some ways, their own. The gothic tone, nascent sexuality and profound feeling of collective helplessness all harken sharply backward. It could be called derivative, but Pittard adds an important twist that makes her take on this very specific genre feel like her own.

In The Fates Will Find Their Way, the disaster that binds the boys together is not suicide but disappearance—one Halloween night, when the teenagers are all out celebrating, 16-year-old Nora Lindell goes missing. When everyone is notified, via a particularly terrible phone tree, and time presses onward, details are muddled and the boys begin to postulate theories. One remembers seeing her near the bus stop, and another thinks he saw her get into a strange car, while others suddenly remember encountering her in a distant airport, where she claimed to be on her way to visiting relatives. What results is a sort of morbid “choose your own adventure” story, as each possibility of Nora’s fate is offered and then rescinded as a possible truth.

It is this particular narrative trick and the care with which she executes it that saves Pittard, casting her as not only a talented mimic, but as an innovator in her own right. In playing out each of the theories about Nora’s disappearance, Pittard perfectly illustrates the hysteria surrounding any such disaster, and the ways in which every detail can be twisted and elevated to create endings to a story that fundamentally has none.

 

Hannah Pittard has big shoes to fill: Her first novel, a dark story of adolescence gone awry, echoes Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides and his own haunting debut, The Virgin Suicides.
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In literature, particularly prominent settings are often described as functioning as an additional character in a book. But Susan Froderberg takes it a step further—in her unusual but promising debut novel, the rural Arizona landscape echoes in every word of the sparse, beautiful prose.

In Old Border Road, Froderberg follows Katherine, a 17-year-old essentially left to fend for herself by her indifferent, divorced parents, each of whom has moved on to a new life. She’s still in high school when she marries Son, a local boy of Native American heritage, and goes to live with him and his parents in their old adobe ranch house, which seems to hold infinite stories in its walls. Son’s parents—whom Katherine calls Rose and Rose’s Daddy—pick up where her own never had, teaching her the basics of homemaking and the daily struggles of marriage. Katherine finds peace in the land, and in the horses that she tends. But the land soon betrays her too, when the region suffers a drought, and Son and Katherine’s relationship is too young and feeble to weather the hardship it brings to the family. Son turns to alcohol and infidelity, and an unplanned pregnancy eventually forces Katherine to make a difficult decision.

Froderberg makes narrative sacrifices to her atmospheric prose, particularly in the pacing, which, like the tumbleweed that swirls through her desert landscapes, seems to meander and quicken at a whim. But she renders the bleak borderlands so completely and with such finesse that the glitches feel inconsequential, even purposeful, cementing her as an exciting new writer to watch.

In literature, particularly prominent settings are often described as functioning as an additional character in a book. But Susan Froderberg takes it a step further—in her unusual but promising debut novel, the rural Arizona landscape echoes in every word of the sparse, beautiful prose. In Old Border Road, Froderberg follows Katherine, a 17-year-old essentially left to […]

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