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Happiness Falls is proof that a thriller doesn’t have to feature private eyes, secret agents, ticking time bombs and exotic locales to keep the reader spellbound. Angie Kim’s suspenseful second novel after Miracle Creek follows a family that lives in a quiet and even bucolic neighborhood near Washington, D.C. They try to stay out of trouble. But trouble comes to them.

The mom, Hannah, is Korean American and an academic. She’s married to Adam, who’s white and a stay-at-home dad. His last name is Parson, hers is Park, and their three kids bear a portmanteau of the two: Parkson. Mia and John, 20 years old, are fraternal twins. The youngest child, 14-year-old Eugene, is diagnosed with autism and mosaic Angelman syndrome (AS), “which means he can’t talk, has motor difficulties, and . . . has an unusually happy demeanor with frequent smiles and laughter.” One day, Eugene comes home upset, pushes his sister out of the way and runs up to his room, where he jumps and vocalizes for hours. Later, Mia finds blood beneath his fingernails. Their dad, who took Eugene to the park that day, is nowhere to be found.

At first the Parksons believe that Adam got lost, and he’ll return. But as the hours drag on and he doesn’t show up, analytical Mia goes into Sherlock mode. (Or Vulcan mode—the Parksons are huge Trekkies.) As narrator, Mia devotes pages to possible scenarios, and adds footnotes to nearly every chapter. The family realizes that waiting 48 hours before calling the police about a missing person is a dangerous myth, and soon the cops are involved. The lead officer’s name is, of course, Janus. On the one hand, she wants to help the Parksons. On the other hand, she’s all but sure that Eugene killed his father and can’t wait to clap the traumatized boy in handcuffs.

Calling a book unputdownable is a cliche, but it has been a while since this reviewer fought off sleep just so she could read one or two more pages. Did Eugene actually kill his father? Why? Is he as noncommunicative as everyone thinks he is? Not only will these and other questions swirl around your brain, but you’ll also come to love the Parksons, especially tetchy, brilliant Mia. You love them for the fierceness of their love for each other, and for their determination, which becomes your own, to get to the bottom of this.

Angie Kim’s suspenseful follow-up to Miracle Creek follows a family that lives in a quiet and even bucolic neighborhood near Washington, D.C. They try to stay out of trouble. But trouble comes to them.
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Etaf Rum barely remembers the exchange, but as a child, she apparently used to jokingly threaten to write a novel about her mother. At least that’s what her sisters tell her, and as the oldest of nine children of Palestinian immigrants living in Brooklyn, Rum no doubt had plenty of family stories to tell. “I was an avid reader,” she says, “and I think that storytelling came to me as second nature.”

Despite these early inclinations, the wild success of Rum’s novel, A Woman Is No Man (2019), is still astounding. For readers, Rum seemed to appear out of nowhere, like a meteor lighting up the sky. “To think that I penned a New York Times bestselling novel with no experience—even talking to you now, it still blows my mind,” Rum says, speaking by phone from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. A Woman Is No Man chronicles several generations of Palestinian American women, all of whom are forced to marry a man of their family’s choosing, live by his and his family’s rules, and undergo verbal and physical abuse—until one young woman finds a way to break the cycle.

“Women, regardless of their race and ethnicity, have identified with these characters—whether in themselves or their mothers or their sisters or their aunts—and have reached out to tell me how much the book has transformed them.”

“I thought I was writing a story for underrepresented Arab women,” Rum says, “[but] the story has touched women across cultures. The universality of the message has stunned me. Women, regardless of their race and ethnicity, have identified with these characters—whether in themselves or their mothers or their sisters or their aunts—and have reached out to tell me how much the book has transformed them.”

These readers have been eagerly awaiting Rum’s second novel, Evil Eye, which begins with mention of a family curse. Protagonist Yara’s grandmother peers into leftover Turkish coffee grounds to read the fortune of her daughter, Meriem, who is about to marry and immigrate to the United States. The novel then flashes forward several decades, to when Yara is experiencing serious job trouble while teaching at a North Carolina college, and Meriem suggests that this predicament is a continuation of the old curse. It’s an opening scene reminiscent of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, and it sets the stage for the way fear, curses and superstition permeate Yara’s story.

“Fear that something bad will happen, that you have to worry about someone or something robbing you of that goodness—it’s such a human trait,” Rum says, noting that this is the root of habits like knocking on wood or hanging an evil eye at an entrance. On a recent trip to Greece, she was amazed by the number of evil eyes she saw. “When I say they were everywhere,” she says, “I mean everywhere. Like every store. I thought it was an Arab thing, but I think the Greeks have definitely won this one.”

“Because my caregivers are still traumatized, they raised me in that trauma.”

In many ways, Evil Eye is a continuation of A Woman Is No Man, although the writing processes were vastly different. The plot of Rum’s debut came “in a flash” as a result of processing “repressed emotions” with therapy and journaling. “Instantaneously, overnight it seemed, I wanted to write a novel,” she says. “I had this urge to write about the Arab American experience, or at least one aspect of it. I drew very heavily on my own upbringing and my own experiences as a Palestinian woman. I had to capture these feelings and maybe make someone feel seen.”

Not only did Rum write quickly, but the novel was also published quickly, making the whole experience feel like a “miracle” and leaving her with a startling revelation: “Up until that point, I was living a life that I thought was of my own choosing, but really wasn’t,” she says. “I think I went through a sort of awakening. I found my voice, and I found out who I was.” As a result, she ended up divorcing her husband, much to her family’s shock and dismay. “I cannot want courage and freedom and bravery for these characters and yet, in my own life, be living in this sort of denial,” she says.

There were repercussions, of course, including a long period of estrangement from her family. As a result, writing her second novel was a struggle—“the opposite of a flash”—but she once again called upon her own experiences. Yara resembles Rum in many ways: Both grew up in Brooklyn, married young and moved to North Carolina. Both have two children and taught college courses, and both felt trapped in their marriages, especially by the expectations placed on them as Palestinian American wives. Like Rum, in Evil Eye, Yara becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage and begins to journal about her life at the urging of her therapist, which helps her chart a new course.

Ironically, Rum did not want her second novel to be autobiographical, but she soon realized, “I’m a sheltered artist who grew up in a sheltered world, so I can’t escape the fact that some of the novel is autobiographical.” Like Yara, Rum grew up with highly protective parents and was given none of the freedoms that the men in her family enjoyed.

“Their future is so uncertain,” she says of her Palestinian family. “And even though they live in America, that trauma is still there for my mom and dad; it’s present with them every day. They conduct their life out of fear and wanting to protect their family. Because my caregivers are still traumatized, they raised me in that trauma. That feeling of displacement—it’s even more than that, because it’s almost as if you’re actually displaced from your own body. You’re constantly running, you’re constantly searching, you’re constantly trying to improve. And I think that’s inherited and acquired. Even now, as a mother of my own kids, I sometimes catch myself and say, ‘Relax. No one’s coming to hurt you or to take away your home.’ But how do you relax when you’re raised on fear?”

In Evil Eye, the author notes similarities between Arab culture and life in the American South, “a place [Yara knows] about only from her favorite southern writers: Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. From their books she’d gathered that southern culture was not so unlike her own: full of loud and large close-knit families where women married young and had many children, focused on conservative values with an emphasis on religion or tradition, with an adherence to recipes that were passed down through generations. Even the obsession with tea at every possible social gathering—though southerners preferred it iced while Arabs served it boiling—felt like a point of connection. The similarities filled her with both comfort and dread.” Indeed, a simmering culture clash becomes a flashpoint in the novel when a colleague makes an offensive remark, causing Yara to explode in a way that has serious career consequences.

While depicting her culture in fiction, Rum remains wary of perpetuating stereotypes, especially because there are so few American writers of Arab or Palestinian descent. “Unfortunately, my stories are very dark, and that just happens to coincide with the world I come from. I’m sure there are many Palestinian communities and families that do not live in such a stereotypical world. I wish I could write about those worlds, but I’m not there yet.”

After initially feeling like an outsider when she moved to North Carolina, Rum has now established a robust sense of community. She has remarried, and she and her husband own both a pizza shop and a coffee shop called Books and Beans. “Now I feel like this place is home,” she says. As for her next project, she’s ready for a change of pace and is considering a screenplay or a children’s book. “There are a lot of ideas popping up in my head,” she says, “but I think that the literary adult trauma novels are for now complete.”

Read our review of Evil Eye.

Author photo by Angela Blankenship.

Bestselling Palestinian American author Etaf Rum was utterly transformed by the characters in her debut, A Woman Is No Man. With her second novel, she begins to process the aftermath.

Our top 10 books of September 2023

The top 10 books for September include the latest from Angie Kim & Zadie Smith, plus a compelling mystery from William Kent Kruger and a helpful guide for talking about food with kids.
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Book jacket image for While You Were Out by Meg Kissinger
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Recent Reviews

The top 10 books for September include the latest from Angie Kim & Zadie Smith, plus a compelling mystery from William Kent Kruger and a helpful guide for talking about food with kids.

Susie Boyt’s Loved and Missed is a disarmingly droll tragicomedy about imperfect motherhood and fractured families, generational trauma and the scars of addiction. Unexpected humor, subtle but honest, percolates through the matter-of-fact voice of its engaging narrator and main character. 

After the perceived failures that led to her daughter Eleanor’s downward spiral into lifelong drug dependence, 50-something schoolteacher Ruth seeks redemption through raising her granddaughter, Lily. The compact narrative—which nevertheless traverses 15 years—takes flight when the nomadic Eleanor agrees to meet Ruth on a gray Christmas day for a picnic, where Eleanor reveals she is going to have a child. Smash cut to Lily’s frenetic christening (the funniest scene in the book), with Ruth trying to rein in the chaos. She gives Eleanor and Lily’s father, Ben, who is also an addict, 4000 pounds as a ploy to convince them to let her take the baby home with her for a week.

Unsurprisingly, the new parents’ promises of baby purchases and educational savings accounts prove empty. After Ruth discovers a junkie’s corpse in Eleanor and Ben’s bedroom, she swiftly takes unofficial custody of Lily. A de facto mother again, Ruth throws herself into the task and bonds with Lily in ways she never managed with Eleanor. The quotidian story that unspools proves engrossing thanks to Ruth’s stream-of-consciousness musing and the occasional surprising revelation. We come to know Ruth and the other women in her life intimately, and it is their very ordinariness that makes the novel resonate. Eleanor enters the story only sparingly, typifying the pain and disconnect of having an addict in one’s family orbit.

Boyt is a well-established literary voice in Britain—she is the daughter of the painter Lucian Freud and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund—yet Loved and Missed, her seventh novel, is the first book of hers other than her memoir, My Judy Garland Life, to be published in the U.S. With Loved and Missed, she proves herself a perceptive writer who invites readers in with a singular voice that both upends convention and cuts to the heart of the matter.

Unexpected humor percolates through the matter-of-fact voice of Loved and Missed’s engaging narrator and main character, Ruth, a 50-something schoolteacher raising her granddaughter, Lily.
Review by

Birds are a lot like life: glorious to behold but gone far too quickly. But unlike the act of bird watching, the glorious aspects of life are counterbalanced by complications—paramount among them, the challenges of relationships. That’s the dynamic Anne Enright explores in her achingly beautiful new novel.

The Wren, the Wren is set in Ireland, and its key relationships are between a mother, her daughter and the daughter’s absent grandfather. Under other circumstances, Phil McDaragh might be a grandfather worth bragging about. He’s justly celebrated for his love poems, which Enright includes throughout the novel. But Nell never knew him because he walked out on his family when his wife—Nell’s grandmother—developed breast cancer.

Enright toggles between the perspectives of Nell and her mother, Carmel. At 22, Nell is just out of college and is “poking my snout and whiskers into the fresh adult air.” She gets a job writing content for an agency and begins a relationship with Felim, whose “party trick is to pick people up by the head,” a habit less distressing than Nell’s suspicion he’s still seeing a previous girlfriend.

For Carmel, the specter of Phil’s departure lingers both in her nurturing side and in a cautiousness toward men. In one of the novel’s many marvelous character depictions, Carmel remembers Phil wearing tweed jackets with pockets “dragged out of shape by little books and cigarette packs” and how the “chewed plastic of his glasses stuck out over one ear.” He was the type of man who would break a chair in frustration when he couldn’t find his watch. When Nell was born, Carmel “did not give [her] to any man…. Because this was her baby, and hers alone.”

In lesser hands, The Wren, the Wren might have been unbearably downbeat. But Enright’s exquisite prose and sympathy toward her characters make it a rewarding experience. Late in the book, a character says, “You think you can walk away, but you really can’t walk away, because, guess what? There isn’t anywhere else to go.” That’s another distinction between humans and birds, as Enright elegantly points out: Both species have their challenges, but when times get tough, it’s easier for birds to rise above it all.

Anne Enright’s exquisite prose and sympathy toward her characters make The Wren, the Wren a rewarding exploration of how the glories of life are counterbalanced by complications.
Review by

What does it mean to become our best selves? The second novel from Nathan Hill, bestselling author of The Nix, compellingly asserts that this question may be more complex than it seems. Exceptionally introspective and deeply empathetic, Wellness examines the idiosyncrasies of 21st-century human nature through reflecting on the contemporary movement to strive for personal wellbeing.

Elizabeth and Jack meet as first-year college students in 1990s Chicago and fall in love practically at first sight. Twenty years later, middle-aged couple Jack and Elizabeth are living in suburban Park Shore with their 8-year-old son, Toby. Jack is an experimental photographer and adjunct art professor; Elizabeth works as a health care researcher. Through years of analyzing psychological studies, there’s one thing she knows for sure: Happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve and plummets lowest as one approaches midlife. Unfortunately, she’s also quite certain that, while she and Jack are trendsetters in many ways, they are in this sense stubbornly, frustratingly average.

So begins an epic tale of Jack and Elizabeth’s fervent efforts to recreate the marriage of their youth. They consider separate bedrooms and explore polyamory, but it’s only when they each begin to reexamine their own shoved-aside histories that the crux of their issues comes to the surface.

Wellness is easy to relate to; fitness trackers, toddler tantrums, suburban disputes and even Facebook’s algorithms are just some of the many modern-day experiences that Hill deftly and entertainingly tackles. From life’s most striking moments to its most mundane and overlooked, along with scientific insights dispersed throughout, Hill extracts meaningful lessons. Expansive in both scale and content matter, Wellness is nonetheless a quick and captivating read: a brilliant, touching account of undertaking self-exploration with someone else by your side.

Fitness trackers, toddler tantrums, suburban disputes and even Facebook’s algorithms are just some of the many modern-day experiences that Nathan Hill deftly and entertainingly tackles in Wellness.

As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, we turn to all things cozy—and we can think of nothing more heartwarming than an unexpected friendship. Here are the platonic pairings that made the BookPage editors feel all snuggly inside.

The Secret Place

In Tana French’s The Secret Place, Detective Stephen Moran gets his chance to join the Murder Squad when 16-year-old Holly Mackey brings him new evidence in an investigation into a murder that took place on the grounds of her boarding school. Stephen heads to Holly’s school to investigate alongside Antoinette Conway, the original detective assigned to the case. Their first interactions are anything but promising, given their diametrically opposed approaches to their work. Stephen masks his ambition behind a friendly, unassuming persona, but Antoinette, who is biracial, has long since given up on playing nice with people determined to hate her due to her gender, racial background or both. As they interrogate Holly and her friends over the course of one long day, a tentative respect begins to grow between the two of them, thanks to their mutual intellect and their common experience of clawing their way up the ranks from working-class backgrounds. It could be the start of a beautiful partnership, and French makes readers as invested in Stephen and Antoinette’s burgeoning friendship as they are in the mystery’s solution.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Frank and the Bad Surprise

I’m going to cut to the chase here. The titular character in Martha Brockenbrough and Jon Lau’s Frank and the Bad Surprise is a cat who lives a good life with his humans, and the bad surprise is a new puppy. The puppy interrupts Frank’s naps, has gross puppy breath and eats Frank’s food, so Frank decides it’s time to move on. “Good luck with that puppy,” he writes in a note to his humans. “You will need it.” There’s so much to love about this illustrated chapter book, from the way Brockenbrough’s wry prose perfectly captures Frank’s feline perspective to the way Lau’s paintings bring Frank’s personality to life. In several images, you’ll swear you can almost hear Frank purring. But the best part is the way Brockenbrough engineers a moving reconciliation between the two former enemies, neatly sidestepping schlock and sentiment and going straight for understated emotional truth. It’s positively the cat’s pajamas.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Lolly Willowes

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, an aging woman breaks away from her grating London family and has a go at independent life in the countryside. After keeping house for her father and brother for over 40 years, Laura Willowes feels liberated in Buckinghamshire—finally free to take long walks in nature and enjoy her own company. Until her nephew visits. Suddenly she is reduced to her old Aunt Lolly self again—put upon and bedeviled—and she becomes so desperate that she calls out for help. Luckily Satan answers, and the novel transforms into a fantastical tale of Lolly’s burgeoning talents as a witch. Along the way, the devil turns out to be a chummy pal: giving Lolly the power to hex her nephew, listening to her complaints about society’s treatment of women. (Satan, as it turns out, is a compassionate and attentive listener.) It’s a darkly humorous novel of a middle-aged woman who is so desperate for autonomy that she’s willing to make a deal—or at least make friends—with the devil.

—Christy, Associate Editor

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders’ first (and so far, only) novel brings together some odd characters. In Lincoln in the Bardo, a group of ghosts works together to save Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, from a place between life and death. Here in the bardo, the ghosts know all of one another’s quirks and faults and dreams and regrets. They’ve come to love one another, and as a reader, I found it easy to love them too. The most unlikely best friendship in the bardo is between middle-aged, carnally frustrated Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, a heartbroken young man who took his own life and now bursts involuntarily into poetry about the beauty of the world he left behind. One of Saunders’ most remarkable gifts is his ability to make even unpleasant characters deeply befriendable. He outdoes himself with this book, crafting 166 distinct, compelling voices and interspersing them with excerpts from real and invented historical sources. He fantastically spins a moment in American history into a philosophical exploration of how grief can either isolate or unite us.

—Phoebe Farrell-Sherman, Subscriptions

The Kindest Lie

People aren’t all that different, even though it often feels that way, and therein lies one of the key superpowers of the “unlikely friendship” trope: bridging polarized experiences to discover where people actually overlap, where one person’s hand fits snugly into another’s. Nancy Johnson’s debut, The Kindest Lie, is one of the novels that most successfully encompasses both the political optimism of 2008 and the insidious racial divisions that were worsened by the economic stress of the Great Recession. Johnson’s protagonist, Ruth, is a Black chemical engineer who returns to her Rust Belt hometown to seek out the child she placed for adoption when she was 17. Upon her return, Ruth bonds with Midnight, an 11-year-old white boy who is mostly being raised by his grandmother but still hopes for connection with his neglectful, bigoted father. Ruth’s and Midnight’s experiences of race, class and privilege are very different, but they’re both lonely, lost and understandably flawed people, and together they find something akin to belonging in a heartbreaking world.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

You’ve got a friend in me! These books feature platonic pairings that made us feel all warm and snuggly inside.
Behind the Book by

In the first few days of January 2019, I was teaching at a residency on an island off the coast of Connecticut. My husband, our two kids and I had driven from Florida to New York on Christmas Day for me to make the gig. Both my husband’s and my families are from Florida, and until recently, my relationship to the holiday has always been beach and warmth and early morning swims. I was both relieved and very sad to be back up north after a week in Florida.

It was freezing on the island, and I was staying in a monastery with faulty heating, small rooms with lumpy beds, crosses on the walls and a shared bathroom down the hall. I went for long pre-dawn runs and taught most of the day. I love teaching but find it draining—the very necessary task of consistently showing up for students, trying to make the workshop space engaging and rigorous, nurturing and safe. 

I had taught at this residency before, and I’d always needed long stretches alone in my room at night, so in November I’d bought myself Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel as a birthday gift. For those who haven’t read it (and you should, immediately), it’s the story of abstract expressionist painters Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, brilliant artists all, living and working in New York at a thrilling, complicated time (before, during and after World War II), being ground down by poverty during the Great Depression and then later, for some, achieving unfathomable wealth and fame.

“I was looking around for someone to tell me how to be, what to do to make things better, but there was no one there, no rituals or practices or authority figures that I believed in anymore.”

I’d become obsessed with going to see visual art a few years prior, not least because I felt completely ill-equipped to understand it. I loved the feeling of walking through a museum and letting the art pull me toward it. Often, I’d go with a friend who also writes, and we’d walk a long time after, talking about what we’d just seen, about what and how it had acted on us.

Going home to Florida always leaves me sad and anxious for all the ways I have failed to love or show up for my family, for all the parts of that place that I love and hate and miss. Ninth Street Women was solace in the face of that—intimacy, much needed company. Gabriel refers to each woman by her first name, and their lives constantly intermingle and overlap. It felt gossipy and thrilling, the texture of competition, sex, money, art, ambition, class disparities and marital spats. I came to crave it, sitting at dinner with my colleagues and my students, FaceTiming with my kids and pretending the connection had gone out. I thought and dreamt about these women, was both inside of them and watching them—a voyeur, constantly shifting my investments and alliances, thrilled and angry and sad on their behalfs. 

Once I left the island, I went back to New York in search of their work, and a new layer was added to this experience: I couldn’t find a good amount of it. I got angry, and so sad, thinking of all that work, which the various museums owned but mostly kept warehoused instead of on display. 

That same trip, I’d been thinking about anger. I’d just finished writing Want, a novel shot through with the fury that had been building in me for a long time. But by the time I read about those women, I was beginning to see the limits to the power of my anger. At first, it had felt so much more active than the sadness I had felt before that, but actually, I realized, it had come to feel just as ineffectual.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how and where novels start, what we pull from our lives and pasts and interests as we build them. I had also, the past few years, been telling stories to my kids on our walks to and from their school. I often asked them to help me start the story, to carry the plot through when I lost steam. Their most consistent bit of advice: kill the mom, because it immediately makes the book more dangerous. (I tried not to take this personally.) 

I’d been thinking about broken systems, too, not just the social safety net, our broken politics, but also the way I felt constantly, embarrassingly, like I was looking around for someone to tell me how to be, what to do to make things better, but there was no one there, no rituals or practices or authority figures that I believed in anymore. In this same vein, I’d been thinking about art and what it was worth, how often I was late for pickup or missed a work email because I was standing there, transfixed by a piece of art, for reasons I could never quite explain. How broke artists (and I) always were. 

From all of this thinking and living emerged the main components of Flight: the holiday, the utility (or not) of art, talk of money, the search for another side to anger, a dead mom creating new pressures and a sense of no one knowing what to do. And from the women in Ninth Street Women, a sense of overlapping and conflicting wants and needs, a deep and desperate desire to do good, underpinned with the terror that you don’t know how. 

Also from Ninth Street Women: I wanted to make a book that felt as it had to me that week on that freezing island, up all night in that lumpy bed: lush and immersive, gossipy and deeply felt. The way it gave me something good and solid felt like sustenance, pleasure, relief.  

How do the fragments of an author’s life coalesce into a book? Lynn Steger Strong reveals the real-life artists and sharp twists of emotion that helped to spark her third novel, Flight.
Review by

In Lynn Steger Strong’s taut domestic drama, Flight, Christmas is a time of tension and healing for three adult siblings in the wake of their mother’s death.

Helen was a formidable figure by all accounts. Equal parts homemaker, matriarch and intellectual, she stood out in her Florida town and provided the charismatic fulcrum around which her family’s life pivoted. Even after her children had long left the family home behind, she wielded a strong influence. 

For their first holiday after her death, Helen’s fractious family has gathered at the large house in upstate New York that middle child Henry shares with his wife, Alice. The whole group is flailing, because Helen died suddenly—without a will—and now they’re fighting over their mother’s Florida home. 

But money and property are only the start of their issues. No one is at ease in Helen’s absence; everyone is worried and hiding some perceived shortcoming. The youngest sibling, Kate, a stay-at-home mom of three, chose a similar path to Helen’s but entirely lacks her conviction. The jury is still out on Kate’s husband, Josh, who spends the holiday dedicated to the seemingly Sisyphean task of building an igloo for the kids to play in. With money trouble looming, Kate’s focus is firmly trained on the big favor she wants to ask of her brothers.

Eldest brother Martin is a professor worried about job stability in the wake of some unbecoming and potentially ruinous behavior. His wife, Tess, is a well-paid and perennially anxious lawyer, who is neither confident with her kids nor comfortable when they’re out of her sight.

Henry is a dedicated artist who does interesting work to document climate change, which no one else inside (or perhaps even outside of) the family understands or values. Alice is a beautiful biracial social worker from a well-to-do family who is grieving her maternal prospects after multiple miscarriages. She dreads being left alone with any of her in-laws.

As a reader, it’s easy to relate to Alice’s trepidation. Though every sibling and spouse in Flight is nuanced and multidimensional, Helen’s clan can be overwhelming. Fortunately, a significant side plot involving one of Alice’s more troubled clients provides a key rallying point for the family as well as some much-needed breathing room. But of course, the myriad fissures, fractures and worries are what make this family drama feel utterly real.

The myriad fissures, fractures and worries of one family at Christmastime make this drama feel utterly real.

Like Dani Shapiro’s other novels and memoirs (most recently, Inheritance), Signal Fires is at its heart a family story, told in the gorgeous, evocative language she’s known for. 

The novel opens on an August night in 1985 Avalon, a pleasant New York suburb, with three teenagers (“good kids—everyone would say so”) in a car. At the wheel is 15-year-old Theo Wilf, who doesn’t yet have his license, and next to him is Misty Zimmerman, the girl he likes. In the back seat is Sarah, Theo’s 17-year-old sister. What should be a mere summertime joyride becomes a deadly accident, and although Sarah and Theo’s doctor father, Ben, is on the scene only a few minutes later, their family’s reality has already shifted. “Change one thing and everything changes,” Shapiro writes, indicating one of Signal Fires’ preoccupations: how one moment of trauma, added to one secret, will reverberate throughout multiple lives.  

The story shifts to a night in December 2010, when a much older Ben, his children long grown, notices that Waldo Shenkman, a boy who lives across the street, is still up, too late for a kid to be awake. Both are lonely—Benjamin’s wife, Mimi, has advanced dementia, and Waldo has trouble making friends—and the two connect over Waldo’s love of the constellations, which he views on his dad’s iPad. 

Signal Fires’ narrative is a fractured, prismatic one, moving mostly among these characters (Sarah, Theo, Ben, young Waldo and Waldo’s dad, known to the reader as Shenkman) and through time (forward to 2020, back to 2010, further back to 1985, up to 1999 and forward again), unraveling these characters’ mistakes and yearnings. Sarah and Theo have grown up and built successful careers, but both are inwardly roiling, estranged from themselves and from each other. And Shenkman, feeling an imposter in his own life, is alienating his wife and son.

Shapiro keeps the plates spinning, bouncing between time periods while moving the story forward, landing on key moments like New Year’s Eve 1999, a point of change and connection in the Shenkman and Wilf families. The novel’s narrative occasionally moves into a mystical mode, which feels a little out of place, but Signal Fires is mainly a meditation on families—the secrets we keep, the hurts we don’t mean to inflict—and how those secrets and hurts play out over time. And the novel’s action keeps pointing back to suburban Avalon, a place that both families call home for a time, making Signal Fires a bittersweet love letter to the suburbs. 

Signal Fires is mainly a meditation on families—the secrets we keep, the hurts we don’t mean to inflict—and how those secrets and hurts play out over time.
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Pakistani British writer Kamila Shamsie is an adept chronicler of how politics impact families in both England and Pakistan. In 2013, she was recognized as one of Granta‘s “20 best young British writers,” and her most recent novel, Home Fire, won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her eighth book, Best of Friends, delves into how relationships formed in childhood affect our adult selves, and speculates about whether even the most cherished friendships could have an expiration date.   

It’s 1988 in Karachi, Pakistan, and teenagers Zahra and Maryam have been best friends since elementary school. Zahra is the studious daughter of a schoolteacher and a cricket commentator, and she dreams of a world beyond Karachi. Maryam is the privileged child of a wealthy family that splits its time between England and Pakistan, and she hopes to inherit her family’s lucrative leather-goods business. 

Adolescence brings changing bodies and a new interest in boys. The girls’ growing sense of freedom is compounded by the election of Benazir Bhutto, whose unexpected win brings hope for a more equitable future for all Pakistanis. But when a ride home from a party with their friend Hammad goes horribly wrong, Maryam and Zahra face the limits of their freedom—as well as the ways their differing upbringings shape their reactions to trauma.

Decades later, both friends have found considerable success in London, where Zahra is a famous lawyer turned political advocate for refugees, and Maryam is a venture capitalist funding the development of facial-recognition software. They are still close, yet certain subjects remain off-limits. When Hammad comes to London, the two women argue over how to handle the situation, and their conflicting approaches put their lifelong friendship at risk.  

Shamsie excels at balancing the personal and the political, and she artfully reconstructs the tense political environment of 1980s Pakistan and the rise of the surveillance state in 2019 London to provide ample opportunities for Maryam and Zahra to find themselves on opposite sides of such issues as privacy, privilege and refugee rights. For any reader who finds themselves at odds with an old friend, Best of Friends rings true in its honest, unvarnished portrayal of friendship strained by politics and ideology.

Kamila Shamsie's eighth novel speculates about whether even the most cherished friendships could have an expiration date.
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All families are dysfunctional, but some raise it to an art form, as Amanda Svensson so deftly outlines in her admirable novel A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding, winner of Sweden’s Per Olov Enquist Literature Prize, awarded annually to a young writer poised for a breakout.

It all starts with the birth of triplets in 1989. Mama’s a little hazy on the details, but what she does remember is that one of the children is whisked from the delivery room due to “what the doctors would later call spontaneous asphyxia neonatorum with no lasting complications.” That may seem like a trivial detail; it’s not. During this chaotic moment, Papa decides to reveal his recent infidelity with his dental hygienist, hoping that its emotional impact will be blunted by the frenzied environment. As it turns out, confessing his dalliance is among the least consequential of his actions that day.

Fast-forward to 2016: Papa has moved out, Mama has decided to make her life right with Jesus, and the semi-estranged siblings have cast themselves across the globe, each embroiled in their own individual expressions of dysfunction. Sebastian has joined a secretive biomedical research institute in London whose purpose is opaque even to him. Clara has joined what might or might not be a doomsday cult on Easter Island. And Matilda is the stepmother in a nuclear family unit in Berlin.

Of the three, Sebastian has the most interesting career. Among his charges at the London Institute of Cognitive Science (LICS) are a monkey with a defined moral compass; a client who dreams of giving birth in a toilet and awakens to find she suddenly has world-class artistic skills; and a woman who has begun to lose the ability to see the world in three dimensions.

Then their mother drops a bombshell: One of the three might have been switched out at the hospital, but she doesn’t want to say who until they can all get together face-to-face. This, as you might expect, causes a fair amount of consternation among the might-not-all-be-kinfolk. 

How they aim to mend their estrangement and cope with their possible nonfamilial ties occupies the majority of A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding, which straddles science fiction, whodunit and soapy drama. While all of the main characters are deeply—really deeply—flawed, Svensson has you rooting for them through their highs and lows. “Nothing ever ends, but everything ends,” she writes. “That’s why soap operas are the only true narrative form, and the soap bubble the only true art form.”

While all of her main characters are deeply—really deeply—flawed, Amanda Svensson has you rooting for them through their highs and lows.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s third novel, On the Rooftop, is a welcome disruption, both to literary trends and in her own publishing career. In a time of immense social upheaval, when many African American writers are foregrounding issues of race, economics and oppression in their books, Sexton chose to write a novel that centers on Black ambition and resiliency.

“With [my previous two novels], it felt like most of my interviews were sociological conversations,” Sexton says from her California home, “but I wanted to be talking about the work.” So for On the Rooftop, she didn’t have a rigid agenda. Instead, her novel emphasizes “the endurance and the joy of a community . . . while also drawing attention to the history of the issues and the fact that they still continue to exist.”

Set in 1950s San Francisco, On the Rooftop focuses on the multifaceted yet endearing Vivian, who has complicated relationships with her three daughters, Ruth, Esther and Chloe. The widowed Vivian dreams of stardom for her musically gifted daughters, who sing together as the Salvations. The young women are popular performers at a local spot called the Champagne Supper Club, and Vivian has hooked the attention of an enigmatic talent manager. 

However, just as the Salvations are on the cusp of fame, Vivian’s aspirations are challenged by personal trauma and their neighborhood’s changing landscape. Her daughters are also beginning to prioritize their own desires over their mother’s prescribed plan. Loosely inspired by Fiddler on the Roof and told from multiple perspectives, On the Rooftop is a masterful examination of family and community that celebrates the legacy of Black dreams and determination.   

“The music really exemplified the endurance of this community. They came here with so much optimism.”

Readers of Sexton’s previous historical novels will recognize On the Rooftop‘s exploration of the often-complex relationships between mothers and daughters. “I can’t escape it,” Sexton says. “There is just so much to be mined. They are such primal relationships, and even the best ones are fraught.” 

In the novel, Sexton describes Vivian’s feelings about motherhood with care and nuance, successfully avoiding tropes and instead creating a character who embodies very specific personal and cultural dynamics. Vivian is a Louisiana transplant who lost her husband, Ellis, long ago, and whose own musical dreams were stunted by her difficult life. This is not, however, your typical parent-living-through-their-child story. “I feel like Vivian has some challenges around when to let go, but I think she ultimately does learn to do so,” Sexton says. “At her best level, she has learned when it’s time to step aside, and I think that’s what parenting is—surrendering to the child’s metamorphosis into an adult.”

The distinct relationships between Vivian and each of her daughters reflect their divergent personalities, histories and ambitions. Vivian puts much of her faith in Ruth—the eldest, the quintessential rock, the de facto leader of the sisters. Ruth has a strained relationship with middle sister Esther, who dreams of making an impact but has conflicting ideas about how to do so. Chloe, the youngest daughter, yearns for her mother, sisters and community to recognize her gifts. 

Sexton notes that despite their differences, all four women are ultimately searching for the same thing: security. “I love that through each of the girls, you get a different window into what security means,” she says. “The goal is for all of them to feel safe in their own separate worlds.” 

The past is ever-present for each of them, and nodes of memory function as creative forces, influencing the women as they navigate generational trauma, interpersonal violence and grief. Vivian, for example, grapples with recollections from her Louisiana homeland and the aftermath of Ellis’ death. As Sexton notes, these memories catalyze Vivian’s goals for her daughters, her self-esteem and her ability to love again. 

“I feel like honoring the memories that you hold is a symbol for the entire book,” she says. “For Vivian . . . she has these painful memories of segregation in the South, of humiliation in the South and of her father’s tragic death in the South. She can’t forget those memories. She can’t erase them, and she can’t bury them. She has to somehow continue to hold those memories and almost transform them into something educational for herself in order to allow this new world to enter into her space.”

Vivian’s memories were also an important factor in Sexton’s writing process. After setting her previous two novels in her hometown of New Orleans, the author wanted to explore the Bay Area, her home of 15 years. The former lawyer, who has a degree in creative writing from Dartmouth College, was cautious, however, feeling that she had yet to possess the cultural authority to imagine her adopted home. “It made sense to me to make Vivian someone who had been born in Louisiana, so we were both coming from the same place,” Sexton says. “She was basically a visitor. Her lens and my lens are not any different.”

During the 1950s, San Francisco’s Fillmore District was considered the “Harlem of the West,” a nod to its similarity to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. The Fillmore’s Black community began to emerge during what is known as the Great Migration, a national trend of northern and western movement as many African Americans left the South in search of new residential and occupational opportunities and to escape the horrors of Jim Crow. The predominantly Black neighborhood became the center of San Francisco’s vibrant jazz scene, where transcendent legends collaborated with local musicians in the many clubs that lined the streets. 

 “Our ancestors have done it, and our descendants will do it. We’re not all alone in this.”

Sexton has a personal connection to the Great Migration. Similar to her characters, members of her own family moved from Louisiana to California in the 1940s and ’50s. When Sexton arrived in the area decades later, these family members welcomed her with open arms, allowing her to immediately feel a sense of community in her new home. She inscribes this sentiment into On the Rooftop

“I love that they brought Louisiana to the Bay Area,” Sexton says, “and that they created this mini-community that was an echo of their own that they had left back home, [where] they could access all of the sources of comfort. . . . They founded the same churches that they would have gone to back home.”

In the novel, Vivian and her daughters dream of musical stardom as a way to secure liberty in the face of racial and economic oppression, and as the Salvations channel their existential angst into jazz and blues numbers performed at Black-owned Fillmore clubs, they share stages with iconic musicians such as Dinah Washington and Lena Horne. While brief, these cameos ground the story in very real historical dynamics. From blues to jazz to gospel and hip hop, music has been the lifeblood of Black people in America, conveying emotion, building community and offering pathways to freedom. Music feels like its own character in On the Rooftop, a vibrant entity that seems to breathe, occupy space and impact social activity.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton author photo
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of ‘On the Rooftop’

“Setting [On the Rooftop] in the jazz era really enlivens the book,” Sexton says. “The music really exemplified the endurance of this community. They came here with so much optimism and so much hope, you know, to work in the shipyards. They had more money than they ever had before. They re-created this community so it felt like home. And this musical scene was part of this.”

In the book, the community’s camaraderie and stability are undermined by white businessmen who begin buying up property in the area. For these businessmen and their partners in government, the Fillmore was a blight, despite being a strong Black residential and business base. Some property owners sold out for a quick windfall, while others resisted until the seemingly benevolent offers turned into harassment. Some continued to fight, as Esther does in the novel.

This process, known as “urban renewal,” affected African American communities across the country in the 1950s and ’60s and is an antecedent to present-day gentrification. While some Black neighborhoods were wiped out through this process, others were able to persist and still exist in some form. With On the Rooftop, Sexton hoped to present a portrait of community resiliency for contemporary neighborhoods resisting gentrification. 

“I want people to be aware of the fact that it’s been around for a long time and that it continues,” Sexton says. “We need to start having conversations, and we need to start creating policies that preempt it, right, that abolish it. And I want people to experience the joy and the endurance of a community that has undergone it and still continued to flourish.” 

Sexton’s work entertains and inspires at the same time, and with On the Rooftop, she urges us to find comfort in the triumphs of our past. “I hope that it will relay the security of knowing that we’re not all alone in this,” she says. “Our ancestors have done it, and our descendants will do it. We’re not all alone in this. We kind of have a blueprint for how to fix it and how to heal ourselves in the process.”

Photos of Margaret Wilkerson Sexton by Smeeta Mahanti

In the third novel from the author of A Kind of Freedom and The Revisioners, the sweetest song comes from the heart of San Francisco's 1950s jazz scene.

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