Looking at a world from an outsider’s point of view is a common theme in literature—with good reason. It supplies a powerful perspective and often enlightenment, as demonstrated in these four memorable first novels.
REACHING A BREAKING POINT
The Islamophobic phase of America’s fitful xenophobia is nothing new: The religion may change, but the fear rarely does. Rajia Hassib’s In the Language of Miracles shows its effect on an Egyptian-American family after their eldest son kills his Christian girlfriend. The novel is topical both in its take on race relations and in its depiction of a troubled young man with ready access to firearms.
Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy are model immigrants. Samir is a doctor building a family practice and aspiring to home ownership. Nagla is a supportive wife, and their kids, Hossam, Khaled and Fatima, are, in Samir’s words, “well-bred.” But something goes wrong with Hossam, even if what exactly that is isn’t clear. Is he mentally ill, or does he only suffer from the “loneliness and boredom” afflicting many newcomers? Either way, one day, in a fit of jealousy, he takes his girlfriend’s life and his own. Some reactions are predictable: threatening letters and graffiti (“Go Home”). Others are more sinister: posting photos of Samir’s house and children to Facebook. Hassib makes it clear, however, that 9/11 did change things for Muslim Americans. Khaled concludes that, as a Muslim, he is frequently seen as “a cancer that brought nothing but suffering.”
Hassib, who was born and raised in Egypt before moving to the U.S. at 23, is a capable writer, especially when dealing with the interpersonal. Her natural use of language resembles that of Khaled Hosseini. Both writers deal with a common theme: Sometimes melting pots have a propensity to boil over.
MAKING THE WRONG FRIEND
If Shirley Jackson and Mary Gaitskill had a literary daughter, it might be Ottessa Moshfegh, whose unnerving debut is sure to garner attention. Part psychological thriller, part coming-of-age novel, Eileen shares a week in the life of its title character: a young woman stuck in a dead-end job in a juvenile detention center who crosses paths with a polished and privileged social worker. Looking back on her life, Eileen narrates with a precise, mesmerizing clarity.
In her early 20s, Eileen is living in a dilapidated house in an unnamed Massachusetts town with her alcoholic father. Eileen, who also drinks too much, loathes her body and settles more deeply into her filthy home every day. She heartily despises her co-workers and harbors an unrequited crush on a guard, more out of boredom than real emotion. But when the attractive new head of education, Rebecca St. John, makes overtures of friendship, Eileen can’t resist her charm. She soon finds herself complicit in Rebecca’s atypical methods.
Eileen takes place over a single snowy week, and the locations—from the attic bedroom and dank bars to the narrow linoleum halls of the jail—add to the feeling of claustrophobia that Moshfegh, currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, expertly builds. It’s the how and not the why that this strange and unsettling novel reveals, and readers will be holding their breath by the final pages.
ODD COUPLE IN AN ODD LAND
Fans of immigrant stories—think Americanah or House of Sand and Fog—will be captivated by Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, the striking first novel from Ohio-based writer Julie Iromuanya.
Nigerians Ifi and Job may have married sight unseen, but they’re united by their determination to present themselves as the perfect, upwardly mobile immigrant couple to their families back home. This provides something of a challenge, since Job—who has been in America for nearly two decades—is not the doctor he claimed to be during their courtship, but a college dropout. As Ifi adjusts to her new home (under Job’s dubious tutelage), they attempt to make the most of their circumstances. That is, until Job’s first wife, whom he married for a green card, resurfaces.
Iromuanya weaves this tale of a mismatched couple with dark humor and careful observation. From the first scene, where Job tries to woo Ifi with techniques learned by watching American pornography (spoiler alert: it doesn’t go over well), it’s clear that no subject is off-limits. Her insights into assimilation—its difficulties and pitfalls—are astute and at times, eye-opening.
THE INSULATED ELITE
For centuries, New York City has been a magnet to dreamers with fantasies of catapulting themselves into the upper echelons of society. Unfortunately, as Evelyn Beegan discovers in Stephanie Clifford’s debut novel, Everybody Rise, the higher you rise, the farther you have to fall should you lose your grip on the social ladder.
Evelyn has landed a job with an up-and-coming social media site, which seeks to attract the crème de la crème. Therefore, Evelyn makes it her mission to land Camilla Rutherford—the queen bee of Manhattan’s young, beautiful and rich—as a client. Knowing that a blue blood like Camilla would never rub elbows with a new-money nobody, Evelyn sets out to reinvent herself. What begins as fudging the truth soon spirals until Evelyn barely recognizes herself. It’s only a matter of time before her carefully constructed house of cards comes tumbling down.
With Everybody Rise, Clifford has crafted a sharp and witty cautionary tale about wealth and the pursuit of the American dream in the 21st century, right before the 2008 financial crash. Her shrewd look at upper-class dynamics in modern day New York society takes up the torch of Edith Wharton. And although her story is sobering in its scope, Clifford keeps it afloat with bursts of comedy; the end result is a thoughtful yet entertaining yarn that manages to bring to mind both The Great Gatsby and The Shopaholic series. Filled with scandal and schadenfreude, Everybody Rise will keep readers flipping pages.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Stephanie Clifford about Everybody Rise.