We’re turning our attention to successful sophomore titles that soared over the high bars set by their authors’ first books.
The Lawrence Browne Affair
Cat Sebastian‘s first romance novel, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, had a pitch-perfect sense of the English Regency period and the dangers of being a gay man in that era. But in her second book, The Lawrence Browne Affair, Sebastian takes the queerness that has always lurked behind within gothic fiction and thrusts it fully into the light. Lawrence Browne, Earl of Radnor, is convinced that he’s going insane due to his difficult family history, his attraction to men and the panic attacks he experiences. When a well-meaning vicar hires him a secretary, Lawrence thinks it will be easy to scare him away with his supposedly “mad” behavior. But Georgie Turner is not a normal secretary: He’s a con man looking for a place to lie low, and the only thing that scares him about Lawrence is the horrendous state of his financial accounts. Sebastian’s wry wit is on full display, and her ability to make the thrills of initial attraction palpably real gives this romance all the wonder of an unexpected second chance.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
As a book review editor, to admit that you haven’t read that novel that everyone else and their mother have raved about—well, it doesn’t feel great. For a time, Yaa Gyasi’s bestselling, universally heralded 2016 debut novel, Homegoing, was the source of one of my primary shame spirals. But then September 2020 rolled around and with it her follow-up, Transcendent Kingdom, a tremendous novel of heart, mind and soul. It’s about Gifty, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who grows up in an all-white evangelical Christian community in Alabama, and grapples with the complexities of her family alongside her own experience of moving from the mysteries of faith to the vast, limitless discourse presented by her career as a neuroscientist. As widely as these questions range, the novel is extremely tight, even tidy, and that kind of storytelling is precisely the way to my heart. It sent me hurrying to Homegoing, finally ready for anything and everything Gyasi has to offer.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, became a bestseller and was adapted into a television series, launching her career into the stratosphere. Her second book, Stray: A Memoir, published in May 2020, after the U.S. had gone into lockdown but before the publishing world had pivoted to remote book events, so it didn’t receive the same attention as Sweetbitter—despite being emotionally potent, beautifully written and gripping to boot. As Stray opens, Danler has moved back to California, where she grew up with parents who were beautiful, unstable addicts. The treacherous landscape of Laurel Canyon kicks up memories of her painful past while an affair dissolves in the present, and as she weaves between the two, trauma takes on a dreamy, phantasmagoric quality, as ubiquitous as the heat. As far as second books go, this one is a mature achievement. And if you have a thing for devastating dysfunctional family memoirs, Stray can hang with the best of them.
—Christy, Associate Editor
The first thing to know about I’ll Give You the Sun is that it was published four years after Jandy Nelson‘s debut, which is an eternity in YA publishing, where authors typically write a book a year. The second is that, perhaps because Nelson took that time, it’s extraordinary on every level. It’s full of sentences that seem as though Nelson came to an intersection while writing and instead of deciding to turn or go straight, she levitated her car and flew to the moon. And then there’s its structure: two narrators, twins Noah and Jude, and two timelines, when they’re 13 and when they’re 16, before and after a tragedy that altered the paths of their lives. Breathtaking is a word critics like, and it comes close to describing the experience of reading this book. But it’s more like the way a roller coaster feels once your stomach is back where your stomach belongs and you’re careening down the track, relieved and ecstatic to still be alive, nearly weightless, almost in flight.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
The Days of Abandonment
In the decade between Elena Ferrante’s first and second novels, her debut was made into a movie, and still no one knew her identity. During that time, certain literary circles obsessed over knowing who Ferrante really was, but perhaps if they gave The Days of Abandonment a closer reading, they would discover how irrelevant and destructive such a question is. Following a woman, Olga, in the aftermath of her husband’s desertion and infidelity, this sophomore novel shows how closely and precariously identity and reality are linked. We see Olga’s life crumble until she finally reaches a nadir from which the only way forward is up. Being confined inside a narrator’s thoughts during a time of such catastrophe and despair is a specialty of Ferrante’s, and here her powers reach a goosebump-inducing, worldview-shattering peak. While the Neapolitan novels might be considered her masterpiece, The Days of Abandonment has everything one could get from Ferrante.
—Eric, Editorial Intern