Michael Cunningham has used three timelines to great effect in his novels Specimen Days and The Hours, his acclaimed homage to Mrs. Dalloway. He does so once again in Day, which follows a Brooklyn family on the same April day over three years: 2019, 2020 and 2021.
As Day opens, Isabel and Dan, in early midlife, are muddling through an ordinary morning with their school-age kids, Nathan and Violet. Isabel is a creative director in an industry that has mostly evaporated, and Dan is a former rocker who still yearns for the spotlight. Isabel’s brother, Robbie, teaches sixth grade history and lives in their attic bedroom. Though the point of view roves among characters and occasionally out over the Brooklyn landscape, it’s Robbie who forms the center of the novel. Robbie’s feeling regret about his ex, Oliver, and about his long-ago decision to turn down medical school. Now he’s about to make a big change: Isabel has asked him to move out. Everyone’s floundering, including secondary characters Garth (Dan’s brother) and his ex Chess, who struggle to navigate their new status as parents. The only one who’s not floundering is Wolfe, Robbie’s Instagram persona—a perfect, though fictional, gay man.
The novel’s middle section takes place a year later, on an April day during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, with Robbie stranded in Iceland, Isabel trying to manage her worries about her kids and her marriage, and Dan starting to write songs again. This section incorporates emails, texts, letters and stretches of unadorned dialogue, including a heartbreaking phone conversation between Isabel and her dad. One year later, in April 2021, the cast of characters gathers upstate, each changed in their place in life and in their relationships with one another.
Despite contemporary details like Instagram follows, Zoom school and long text exchanges, Day has a dreamy, timeless feel. Using gorgeous, often heightened prose, Cunningham offers intimate glimpses of weighty moments instead of big scenes to examine the family’s strands of connection and disconnection, along with the ripple effects of the pandemic. Day may be a spare, short novel, but it’s a novel that asks to be read meditatively, rather than rushed through.
Michael Cunningham’s gorgeous prose gives Day a dreamy, timeless feel as it examines a family’s strands of connection and disconnection, along with the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Lynn Steger Strong’s stirring Flight, siblings Kate, Henry and Martin struggle to make it through the holidays after the death of their mother. Assembling at Henry’s home with their respective families for Christmas, they try to be cheerful while sorting out big issues like whether to keep their mother’s house. When the daughter of a friend disappears, the siblings offer support, and the crisis transforms each of them. Strong’s powerful novel features a range of discussion topics, including grief, inheritance and the bonds of family.
Set on the border between Texas and Mexico, Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester chronicles the marriage of Isabel and Martin. Martin’s late father, Omar, deserted the family when Martin was a boy. But every fall, on the Day of the Dead, Omar’s ghost visits Isabel and begs her to convince Martin and the rest of the family to forgive him. As the novel unfolds, Isabel learns more about Omar and his past, and her discoveries threaten her happiness. Themes like loyalty, memory and the Mexican American immigrant experience will spark spirited dialogue among readers.
In Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball, Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt, successful writer of Christmas romances (an occupation she conceals from her Jewish family), is asked to pen a love story set during Hanukkah—an assignment that proves daunting. Rachel finds Hanukkah lackluster compared to Christmas, and she hits a wall while dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome. In need of motivation, she helps organize a Hanukkah celebration called the Matzah Ball, reconnecting with an old flame along the way. Meltzer mixes humor with romance to concoct a delightful holiday frolic.
December takes an unexpected turn for the Birch clan in Francesca Hornak’s Seven Days of Us. Emma and Andrew Birch look forward to spending Christmas at Weyfield Hall, their country house, but when their daughter Olivia, who’s a doctor, returns from Liberia where she was exposed to a dangerous virus, the family is forced to quarantine for a week. Despite rising tensions and the reveal of a huge family secret, the Birches become closer than ever during their Yuletide lockdown. Poignant yet festive, Hornak’s novel is a treat.
There’s nothing more fun than gossiping about fictional characters with your book club.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. If you’re looking for quiet desperation in modern-day America, you’d be hard-pressed for a better place to find it than the “dubiously named” Oasis Mobile Estates in Riverside County, California, the setting of Asale Angel-Ajani’s debut novel, A Country You Can Leave.
Russian-born single mom Yevgenia Borislava and her Afro-Cuban daughter, Lara, have alighted on this repository of broken dreams, the latest in a string of temporary addresses the two have occupied for all of Lara’s life. At 16, Lara finds herself on the awkward cusp of adulthood, a situation that’s difficult enough without her strained relationship with Yevgenia and her yearning for a long-absent father whom she knows only through her mother’s possibly unreliable stories.
On top of that, Lara’s economic situation is brought into high relief due to a zoning mistake that lands her in a high school intended for the nearby gated community that, economically speaking, might as well be on another planet. At school, Lara surrounds herself with a small diverse group that includes a gay Black aspiring poet named Charles and a compulsive white shoplifter named Julie, both of whom find Yevgenia more fascinating—or at least less embarrassing—than Lara does.
For most of the novel, readers are treated to the passive-aggressive back-and-forth between a mother and daughter who haven’t quite learned a healthy way to express their devotion to one another, until a violent altercation with an outsider becomes the crucible in which their relationship will either be forged or splinter irrevocably.
Angel-Ajani’s unflinching portrait of this hypernuclear family is captivating and complex, with a richly drawn supporting cast and occasional arch humor that leavens the intensely emotional backdrop. A Country You Can Leave gives voice to a group of star-crossed characters struggling to transcend Thoreau’s trap.
Asale Angel-Ajani’s unflinching portrait of a hypernuclear family is captivating and complex, with a richly drawn supporting cast and occasional arch humor that leavens the intensely emotional backdrop.
Early in Cathleen Schine’s poignant, very funny novel, effervescent 93-year-old Mamie Künstler demands that her grandson, Julian, drag himself away from the screen of his phone. “I want your attention,” she announces. “I mean here you are.” And boy, is he. The 24-year-old has just broken up with his girlfriend, can no longer afford his rent in Brooklyn and has been sent by his parents to Venice Beach, California, to look after Mamie, who has fractured her wrist. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic arrives, trapping the pair together indefinitely in Künstlers in Paradise.
As a diversion from endless hours of watching MSNBC “like hollow-eyed drug addicts,” Mamie begins to tell Julian stories of her life, beginning with her emigration from Vienna at age 12 with her parents and grandfather in 1939. The family delayed their departure for as long as possible, rarely leaving the house during that time. As Mamie explains, storytelling is “what Grandfather and I did to amuse each other. We told stories when we were stuck in the house.” Once the family began their journey “off to a land of make-believe,” Mamie says, “I was amazed, enchanted! I was like Odysseus on Calypso’s island!”
Mamie’s tales of her adopted country read like a who’s-who of old Hollywood: repeated encounters with Greta Garbo (who becomes an important person in Mamie’s life), tennis lessons with composer Arnold Schoenberg and Thanksgiving dinner with Aldous Huxley, actor Anita Loos and Adele Astaire (Fred’s older sister). Schine’s sharp wit is constantly on display, as when Mamie interrupts her narration to comment on Julian’s lack of familiarity with many of these celebrities: “We will have an intermission while you google.”
Few authors could pull off the storytelling format of Künstlers in Paradise, but Schine does so seamlessly and marvelously, creating a multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history. In addition to a cavalcade of humor, there is great and sobering substance amid the stark contrasts, conveyed in the slightest touch of Schine’s well-crafted prose: “The physical beauty of Venice and the moral ugliness of America were more difficult for Julian to reconcile. On the day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer kneeling on his neck, the jacaranda trees burst into bloom, canopies of unnatural color, a spectacular purple, blossoms lush and bizarre.”
As story after story unfolds, Julian and Mamie are transformed. After Julian hears Mamie describe a Künstler family photo taken back in Vienna, he notes, “She didn’t skip a beat at the mention of Dachau. . . . Or of her cousin who perished there. What an intricate, convoluted bundle of emotional strands she must carry around inside that heart.”
As Mamie concludes in her own delightful way, “I do not believe in life after death. . . . I sometimes have trouble believing in life before death: it is all so improbable.” Künstlers in Paradise is truly a trove of unexpected rewards.
Few authors could pull off what Cathleen Schine does in Künstlers in Paradise: creating a seamless, multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history.
Donal Ryan may not be as well known outside of Ireland as some of his contemporaries, but his sixth novel, The Queen of Dirt Island, adds to an impressive body of work that should garner him wider recognition. This story of four generations of Irish women fractiously sharing their village home in modern-day County Tipperary has a gentle heart and a spine of steel, its appeal enhanced by Ryan’s understated yet evocative prose.
Only a few days after her birth, Saoirse Aylward loses her father in a car crash, leaving her mother, Eileen, with the task of raising the girl. Eileen is assisted by her opinionated mother-in-law, Mary, who moves into the family home from the nearby farm managed by her two surviving sons, one of whom is arrested for storing guns and explosives for the Irish Republican Army. Ryan elides most of Saoirse’s childhood until, prior to her 18th birthday, a drunken encounter with a singer in a local rock band produces a daughter, Pearl.
Then Saoirse’s “stupid accidental life” is upended again by the return of the town’s prodigal son, Joshua Elmwood, with his girlfriend, Honey Bartlett. After Honey departs for a filmmaking project, romance blossoms between Saoirse and Josh. It’s an unlikely and rocky pairing, but one that moves Saoirse farther down the path of maturity. This isn’t the story’s only fraught relationship, as Eileen and her brother also war over the humble piece of land that provides the novel’s title.
Whether Ryan is exploring the shifting dynamics of the Aylward women’s often intense interactions or following the contours of Saoirse and Josh’s tempestuous love affair, he does so with sensitivity and grace. In an unusual technique, each of the book’s chapters comprises two pages, some of them functioning almost as self-contained short stories, others seamlessly moving the plot forward. Ryan is adept at fashioning arresting images to enliven his storytelling, among them Eileen’s “utterances flung around like fistfuls of confetti.”
There is emotional and physical violence in The Queen of Dirt Island, along with tender and deeply felt moments. The novel’s predominant tone is pastoral, consistent with the beautiful Irish landscape Ryan evokes with subtle brushstrokes, and capable of leaving an imprint on the reader’s mind and heart.
This story of four generations of Irish women fractiously sharing their village home in modern-day County Tipperary has a gentle heart and a spine of steel, its appeal enhanced by Donal Ryan’s understated yet evocative prose.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cathleen Schine sat lounging in her glorious, sweet-smelling Los Angeles garden, feeling miserably stuck. She knew she wanted to write about Jewish German exiles in Hollywood during World War II but feared that a strictly historical novel might become “a pit of phony insertions of detail,” a quagmire-ridden quest for historical accuracy.
Make no mistake, Schine’s novels are always fine-tuned, fascinating and funny. She’s been compared to Nora Ephron and Jane Austen. Her books include Alice in Bed, about a suburban teenager with a mysterious disease (inspired by Schine’s own strange illness as a young woman), and more recently, The Grammarians, about identical twin girls obsessed with language and battling for custody of their family dictionary.
Thankfully, revelation struck and opened the creative floodgates Schine needed to pen her latest novel, Kϋnstlers in Paradise. Speaking by phone, she recalls, “I was sitting there with my notebook closed and the cap on my pen, staring at all this beautiful jasmine, unable to go anywhere or do anything. And I thought, ‘This is a kind of exile, too, because I’m sitting here in all this beauty, and all my friends are back in New York, locked in, terrified.’” Her friends’ parents were dying, and Schine’s own mother, in her 90s, was also housebound, sick and, as it turns out, nearing the end of her life. “At that moment,” the author says, “New York was a horrible, terrifying nightmare, and here I was in this beautiful garden, basically in paradise.”
The result of Schine’s magical moment is a multigenerational family drama about exile, guilt, aging, storytelling and love, all told with a hefty helping of humor. Ninety-three-year-old Mamie Kϋnstler has lived in Venice Beach, California, since emigrating as a girl from Vienna, Austria, in 1939 with her parents and grandfather. After Mamie fractures her wrist, her grandson Julian, a wannabe screenwriter who can no longer afford his rent in New York City, arrives to help out.
Then COVID-19 strikes, and Julian is less than thrilled to find himself quarantined with his grandmother, her housekeeper and a Saint Bernard named Prince Jan. Julian might not love it, but readers absolutely will. Imagine, for instance: “Julian and his grandmother were stretched out in two chaise longues, side by side like an old couple by a Miami pool.”
Eventually, however, Julian finds himself intrigued and even transformed by Mamie’s marvelous tales of Vienna and old Hollywood. Their time together reads like a love letter to not only Los Angeles but also the relationship between grandparent and grandchild—a theme further echoed in Mamie’s tender relationship with her own grandfather.
Schine initially became intrigued by these Hollywood exiles (many of whom called themselves émigrés, she explains, “as if they weren’t ‘regular’ immigrants like the Russian Jews”) after reading a biography about composer and socialite Alma Mahler, and another about actor, screenwriter and activist Salka Viertel. Schine even named Mamie after Viertel; both women share the given name “Salomea.” Viertel appears in the novel, along with many other well-known figures, including writers Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann; composer Arnold Schoenberg, who teaches Mamie to play tennis; and actor Greta Garbo, who is a major character.
“I just became obsessed with these people,” Schine admits. “I read a million memoirs of the period. And by a million, I mean a million.” She wondered what it would be like to be a high-cultured person who suddenly found themselves in LA in 1939, a time when the city was culturally barren in comparison to, say, Vienna. “They came over here and had to exist in this beautiful place while their world was being completely destroyed, and that whole notion really captured my imagination,” Schine says.
Although Kϋnstlers in Paradise is far from autobiographical (Schine says her own immigrant ancestors were far less “exalted” than these characters), she notes that “almost all of my older women characters are modeled to some extent on my mother, and also my grandmother,” both of whom had great senses of humor. Like Schine’s mother did, Mamie dyes her hair “a much brighter red than nature could have provided,” although Schine notes that Mamie is still “really very much her own person.”
In contrast to Mamie’s swift development, Schine says, “It took a long time for Julian . . . to become a real character, not just a name that I kept putting in so that Mamie could say something. . . . I wanted him to be in some ways innocent and in some ways entitled. He hasn’t really done anything with his life yet, but on the other hand, he isn’t a complete narcissistic dumbbell. He’s just a kid. Getting that right was very difficult.”
Like Julian, Schine was just getting to know Los Angeles during the pandemic—even though she’s lived there for over 10 years. COVID-19 put a stop to Schine’s monthly visits to New York City to see her mother, giving her more time in LA “to walk around and get accustomed to the neighborhood and the way the light changes and the seasons, which exist, but they’re so different,” she says. “I was a real New York snob.” She had lived in New York for decades, raising her two sons there with New Yorker film critic David Denby. After their divorce, she moved to California with her wife, filmmaker Janet Meyers. “I realized that the part of New York that I had come to love the most was Central Park,” she says, “and I thought, ‘If New York for you is Central Park, then you could live in Los Angeles.’ I just got to the point where I wanted a quiet, peaceful place to live.”
Another trait that Schine shares with Julian is the fact that her own career emerged, shall we say, slowly. She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, hoping to become a poet. “I’d never been to a place like that, where everyone was dressed in such a fabulous, interesting way and was so smart and charismatic. And I thought, ‘I am not letting these people read my poems. Are you kidding?’” She quickly transferred to Barnard College, changed her major to medieval studies and then went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, only to become “a failed medievalist.” Next, she landed a job at TheVillage Voice with help from her mother’s best friend, who later encouraged Schine to transform one of her articles into a novel.
During this time, Schine felt like “a depressed lump,” living with her mother and sleeping on top of her bed so that when her mother walked in, “I could just sit up and the bed was made.” She eventually began writing a novel secretly, “pretending like I was making a shoe,” which allowed her to avoid the “baggage that it had to be the great American novel.”
Looking back, Schine recognizes that her success was “a combination of great luck, connections and, I have to think, some talent. When that happens, and the luck is there, it’s amazing.” In contrast to writers who begin with outlines, Schine experiences her own writing process like “being en plein air in a city, strolling through your book, observing things as you go.” She tends to structure a novel after most of it has been written; in the case of Kϋnstlers in Paradise, because it is full of Mamie’s stories, it ended up being “about stories and what they mean, and where they fit into your own life—and into the lives of the people you tell them to. And how stories change, and also change people.”
Schine has previously said that she doesn’t want to write her own life story, but today she says, “You know what? I think I want to, actually.” However, as she begins to discuss the genre, she quickly backtracks. “It’s funny. I want to write a memoir, but I don’t really want it to be very personal,” she says. “Somehow writing about myself seems so self-indulgent without the protection of a novel to make it more interesting and, in some ways, more real for other people. On the other hand, I love reading memoirs. Go figure.”
Photo of Schine by Karen Tapia.
Kϋnstlers in Paradise chronicles a grandmother and grandson facing COVID-19 lockdown together. Hilarity ensues, as well as revelations.
Following on the heels of her bestselling third novel, Dear Edward (a 10-episode adaptation was recently released on Apple TV+), Ann Napolitano offers a lively homage to Little Women with Hello Beautiful. Chronicling the lives of the four Chicago-based Padavano sisters and one of their suitors, this sprawling drama stretches from 1960 through 2008, tracing the arc of their family dynamics, including the ties that forever bind them as well as circumstances and betrayals that tear them apart. Like Little Women, Hello Beautiful also thoughtfully examines the comforts and challenges of home life, work and romantic love, but with a distinctly modern perspective.
The novel begins with William Waters, whose life has been defined by the death of his 3-year-old sister just days after his birth. The tragedy casts a permanent pall over his parents’ days, and they ignore William thereafter—to a perhaps unbelievable degree. As William realizes, “They’d only ever had one child, and it wasn’t him.” Basketball becomes his primary source of stability, and he leaves his suburban Boston home after earning a basketball scholarship to Northwestern University. At school, he meets self-assured, determined Julia Padavano, who decides during their first conversation that he’s the one for her.
The two marry, and slowly but surely, William becomes part of the Padavano clan, which also includes long-suffering mother Rose, goodhearted father Charlie and Julia’s three sisters: artistic Cecelia and nurturing Emeline, who are twins, and literary Sylvie, who kisses boys in the library stacks while waiting for a “once-in-a-century love affair.” Julia repeatedly warns Sylvie about her idealism: “The kind of love you’re looking for is made up,” she says. “The idea of love in those books—Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina—is that it’s a force that obliterates you. They’re all tragedies, Sylvie. Think about it; those novels all end with despair, or death.”
Julia’s prophecy proves to be apt, with slow-simmering events reaching a shocking culmination as a benign moment turns “dangerous, like a shining dagger.” The family is torn apart in dramatic fashion, despite the fact that the four sisters “had beat with one heart for most of their lives.”
As Napolitano switches narrators throughout the book, readers become fully enmeshed in the sprawling lives of her characters, watching them change and grow over decades. They’re a likable bunch, and as with real friends and family, readers may sometimes want to intervene, or at least offer some advice, as they make life-altering decisions. Napolitano goes to great lengths to explain and justify her characters’ choices—at times, at the expense of action and dialogue. Still, William and the Padavano sisters remain memorable, and Napolitano’s sharp plotting provides a gripping conclusion that radiates love and kindness, the sort you wish that all feuding families might find their way to.
This bighearted domestic novel reaches comforting highs and despairing lows as Napolitano examines the many ways that families pull each other together and apart.
This bighearted domestic novel from the author of Dear Edward reaches comforting highs and despairing lows as it sharply examines the many ways that families pull each other together and apart.
One hot August in the well-to-do community of Kitchewan, New York, an act of violence tarnishes the veneer of security and shine. The insular suburb may have “great schools, upscale people, and gorgeous river views,” but just like a body of water, the surface never tells the whole story.
Indian American immigrant Babur Singh and his daughter, Angie (formerly Anjali), are making their way in a very white world, neither of them knowing the rules that others seem to intrinsically grasp. In a traumatizing instant, Angie is thrust into the very spotlight she wants to avoid: Walking home from swim practice, she finds handsome, popular jock Henry McCleary stabbed on the football field. Biases reveal themselves as public opinion solidifies in predictable ways, and soon all fingers point to Chiara Thompkins, one of the only Black students at Kitchewan High School, who has disappeared.
From this bang of an opener, Vibhuti Jain’s debut novel is marked by crime and prejudice, building to a story of human nature at its most vulnerable and manipulative. The lives of Chiara, Henry, Angie, Babur and Didi (Chiara’s cousin) grow more and more entwined in the aftermath of the incident, which is not as straightforward as everyone believes. The characters’ tumultuous minds are captured in arresting detail, although the chapters that incorporate multiple perspectives and points in time are a bit muddled. Still, Jain excels at developing multidimensional characters and an atmosphere of intrigue while also calling attention to the complicated web of class and race dynamics.
Everyone in Our Best Intentions carries a secret shame: something they want to conceal or protect, even as they also wish to be free of it. Angie especially is looking for absolution in the midst of all her tangled teenage emotions about what really happened between Henry and Chiara. Babur is looking for the light in his daughter’s eyes and the laugh in her voice to return. And although the authorities may be looking for Chiara, not enough people in Kitchewan are searching for the truth. But eventually the truth will out, as it always does.
Crime and prejudice mark Our Best Intentions from the beginning, building to a story of human nature at its most vulnerable and manipulative.
Tony Zhang has always been willing to do what is necessary in his pursuit of a better life. He left his fishing village in China, seeking education and opportunities in the big city of Dalian, and found love along the way. In the early 1990s, he and his wife, Kim, lived comfortably, supported by his successful engineering career and her medical practice. But they dreamed of more—a TV, a refrigerator, a house, possibilities—so they left China and their careers for New York City.
As Tony and Kim’s daughter, Tammy, grows up, she struggles to understand her father, whose expectations feel impossibly high. Tony calculates how quickly Tammy can graduate college and then law school. He wants her to have access to the level of wealth displayed in the Rosewood, the upscale co-op on the Upper West Side where Tony works as a door attendant. But Tammy doesn’t know why her father has invested so much in a future she isn’t sure she wants.
Oliver is a 26-year-old white attorney who lives in the Rosewood. Eager to be seen as a good guy, the kind of person who knows his door attendant’s name, Oliver strikes up a friendship with Tony. After a dramatic incident in which a man tries to steal a Rosewood tenant’s purse, Tony becomes a hero, and Oliver devotes even more attention to him, quickly intertwining himself with the Zhang family. Tammy becomes Oliver’s protégé, first taking piano lessons from him and eventually following in his professional footsteps.
In chapters that shift between Tony, Tammy and Oliver, charting their past and present motivations over the course of several decades, Paper Names explores how we’re shaped at the points where we intersect with others. While Tammy’s sections account for slightly less than a third of the book, her chapters are the only ones told from a first-person perspective, subtly communicating that the young woman’s life is the novel’s center. And although Tammy spends decades learning from both her father and Oliver, she retains blind spots about their lives—spaces where their stories move outside her view.
Debut novelist Susie Luo executes the jumps between her characters’ perspectives well, allowing the shifts to feel as natural as revisiting one’s own memories. This is a well-woven tale about the legacies that are passed down through generations, even when family members upend their lives in search of distance from one another.
Susie Luo’s debut novel is a well-woven tale about the legacies that are passed down through generations, even when family members upend their lives in search of distance from one another.
Genetic engineering and mutations are a staple of fiction; think The Island of Dr. Moreau, Brave New World or, more recently, Jurassic Park. Ramona Ausubel’s sparkling novel The Last Animal focuses on a young scientist’s impulsive attempt to revive an extinct species and the impact this has on her children, who are traumatized by the accidental death of their father.
Graduate student Jane is the only female member of a scientific team working in the Arctic Circle, searching for traces of the wooly mammoth and hoping to reignite an ecosystem that could possibly reverse the effects of global warming. She is accompanied (begrudgingly) by her two teenage daughters, the fiery, sarcastic Eve and sweetly obedient Vera. The girls crave routine and stability, and they are fiercely protective of their mother as well as each other.
Eve and Vera’s accidental discovery of a perfectly preserved baby mammoth in the Siberian permafrost brings a flurry of excitement. But once back at the University of California, Berkeley, Jane is still washing pipettes in the lab while research grants are handed out to her male colleagues. At a departmental fundraiser, Jane has a chance encounter with a glamorous woman named Helen, who has a palatial estate and home zoo in Italy, complete with giraffes and an elephant. This leads to Jane implanting a genetically modified embryo, based on the baby mammoth’s DNA, into Helen’s elephant. The next thing you know, Jane and her daughters are flying to Lake Como to meet an animal that’s been extinct for hundreds of years.
The Last Animal whizzes around the planet—from the steppes of Siberia to the shores of Iceland to a remote alpine village—with a dizzying, almost madcap speed, but at the novel’s heart are the deep ties between mother and daughters, sister and sister, human and animal. Though Jane, Eve and Vera are grieving, they never lose their sense of adventure and love of scientific discovery. Ausubel crafts this moving story with wit and depth, allowing readers to witness a family drawn together by both loss and a sense of wonder at an ever-changing planet.
Ramona Ausubel crafts this moving story with wit and depth, allowing readers to witness a family drawn together by both loss and a sense of wonder at an ever-changing planet.
Aisha Abdel Gawad mixes family drama with a coming-of-age narrative in her debut novel, resulting in a gripping, intimate portrait of a Muslim family in the post-9/11 United States.
Amira and Lina are twin sisters living in Brooklyn who will soon graduate from high school, but their celebration is cut short by life-changing news: Their brother, Sami, is being released from prison. At the same time, during the holy month of Ramadan, their Muslim neighborhood is experiencing hateful attacks. As their brother readjusts to society and the twins teeter on the precipice of adulthood, they all find that, although family and faith tie us together, such bonds can also be used to restrict and smother.
Between Two Moons is narrated primarily by Amira, the more bookish twin. She is ready for a fresh start, and college promises a profound reinvention. Unfortunately, freeing herself from the chains of family, specifically her two siblings, is far easier said than done. Although Lina looks up to Amira, Amira has always felt overshadowed by her freewheeling twin, who aspires to be a model.
Meanwhile, Sami remains cloaked in mystery; the twins have never known the reason he went to prison, and their adolescent memories of him are defined by his rage and destruction. However, when Sami returns, he doesn’t go back to making drug deals on the corner or getting into screaming matches with their parents, a shift that initially makes the twins uneasy. But soon, the family learns to be together again: Sami works with their dad at his butcher shop, and the five of them take a trip to Coney Island in a heartwarming scene of unity.
Such rosy moments are fleeting, as Islamophobia casts a long shadow over the story. Characters frequently make jokes or references to the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons, but this comes from their collective pain, the torture they have experienced under the threat of hate. Some characters find ways to resist this malice, such as Faraj, Amira’s love interest and a community organizer who tries to teach Amira about bringing people together. Meanwhile, Sami devotes himself to his faith, developing a “third eye” mark on his forehead from praying.
By the end of Between Two Moons, it is unclear whether these efforts make any tangible change, but that isn’t really the point. Coming together, feeling for one another no matter what each of us have been through—this is what Abdel Gawad’s novel advocates for. There is no more powerful message.
In Aisha Abdel Gawad’s powerful novel, although family and faith tie its characters together, such bonds can also be used to restrict and smother.
What happens when dreams don’t pan out? That’s the question that Malcolm and Jess Gephardt both face after years of marriage in Mary Beth Keane’s engrossing fourth novel.
Like her bestselling 2019 novel, Ask Again, Yes, The Half Moon is set in the fictional town of Gillam, New York, modeled after Keane’s hometown of Pearl River. While the events of Ask Again, Yes spans 40 years, The Half Moon focuses on a week or so in the Gephardts’ lives, exploring how events of the past have led to their discontent and an ultimate reckoning.
Malcolm’s lifelong dream has been to own the Half Moon, the bar where he’s worked for years. He finally does, although menacing creditors are knocking at his door, and he doesn’t have the cash to transform it the way he’d like—years of futile fertility treatments have exhausted the couple’s savings. Early in the book, he muses that “middle age was looming and he could already see the headline that would arrive with it: that a person could be extraordinarily good at something and still fail at it.” And he is good—a gregarious guy who’s got the charm to manage any situation.
Jess is a lawyer, although her heart isn’t really in her career—or anything, for that matter. After moving out and away from Malcolm, she is trying to figure out next steps. In flashbacks, we learn that she has been increasingly attracted to Neil, a divorced lawyer who is the primary caregiver of his three young children and has recently moved to Gillam. In a struggle that seems quite real, Jess desperately tries to stave off these stirrings, wondering if it’s “possible to dance at the edge of a precipice and keep dancing for the rest of your life.”
Then a blizzard descends on Gillam, paralyzing the lives of its residents and emphasizing the feelings of entrapment felt by not only Malcolm and Jess but also a host of other wonderfully portrayed characters who work in and frequent the bar. As the story unfolds, the many fascinating behind-the-scenes details about running a bar range from heartbreaking to humorous. It’s a masterful setup, laid out in a careful, intriguing way. The disappearance of one of the bar’s patrons during the storm, lends a sense of urgency to the plot and adds a layer of impending doom that plays out in both emotional and physical terms.
Keane’s down-to-earth characters in Gillam are reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s wonderfully authentic Baltimore personalities. They’ll tug your heartstrings as they try to make their way through this world with steps forward, back and sideways.
Mary Beth Keane’s down-to-earth characters in Gillam are reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s wonderfully authentic Baltimore personalities.
T.C. Boyle has never been afraid to torment his characters or draw from real life, and he does both in Blue Skies, putting his cast through just about every climate-related calamity to make the contours of the crisis so prominent that no one could miss them.
He begins this bicoastal adventure—the action toggles between Florida and California—with, of all things, jewelry. But it’s “living jewelry,” a Burmese python purchased by influencer Cat to wear around her neck. Boyle, the unparalleled stylist, describes Cat’s thought process in gorgeous prose: She thinks snakes are beautiful, “as if somebody had dipped a brush in acrylics and traced the lines that radiated in a widening V from their mouths to draw reticulate patterns across their backs and down their sides.”
Plenty of descriptions as unforgettable as that one follow as Boyle introduces multiple characters and complications, from the self-inflicted to the unforeseen. Cat’s ambition is to gain online followers and show off her Florida beachfront home. She lives there with her Tesla-driving fiancé, Todd, whose job involves drinking and partying to promote a rum brand. To Cat’s chagrin, it also involves a lot of time away from home.
Across the country in California are other members of Cat’s family. Her brother, Cooper, is an entomologist, disparaged as “Bug Boy” by classmates when he was growing up but who now conducts field research to study ticks and other arachnids. Their mother, Ottilie, is so deeply impacted by Cooper’s warnings about harming the planet that she begins cooking with crickets, making everything from cricket cobbler to cricket-infused cookies and brownies.
The disappearance of Cat’s snake is only the mildest of calamities to befall this group. Ever the maximalist, Boyle inflicts one disaster after another to show the perils of climate change. If anything, there’s too much incident. Fewer would have made his point more effective.
But wealth is better than poverty, and Boyle doles out ample riches. The pace never lets up, and he blends many other timely themes into his narrative, from aversion to parenthood to the ruthlessness of the media. Blue Skies may not be top-flight Boyle, but it’s Boyle at his most urgent. “What good was beachfront property if there was no beach?” Ottilie asks. As Boyle warns us, take the planet for granted, and don’t be surprised if, like a snake, its luxuries slither away.
Ever the maximalist, T.C. Boyle inflicts one disaster after another to show the perils of climate change in his novel Blue Skies.
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In a small town, near a playground, inside an abandoned mailbox, under a tree, there lives an extremely shy bunny named Willow. She leads a quiet, creative life in her little metal home; it’s a comfort zone tucked away from boisterous children and errant soccer balls. Sometimes she allows the tippy-tops of her extra-long ears to poke out of the mailbox slot, engaging with the world just a little bit.
Merlin Sheldrake has transformed his bestseller, Entangled Life, into a photography book with an abridged text. The psychedelic and disorienting imagery it contains stars mushrooms and lichens, spores and gills, a glorious unseen world now in Technicolor.