The Cabrelli family has lived on the Italian coast for generations as local jewelers and pillars of their community. On her 80th birthday, family matriarch Matelda is grappling with her slowly failing health and unresolved family traumas. As Matelda takes stock of her life during a series of visits with her granddaughter Anina, she reflects on the great love stories woven through her family history and the bitter losses the Cabrellis have endured.
In 1939, Matelda’s mother, Domenica, is sent from her home in Viareggio, Italy, to work in a French hospital alongside other young women from around the world. Domenica’s initial homesickness quickly subsides as she and the other nurses go to pubs and dance on the pier. When anti-Italian sentiment sweeps through much of Europe, the hospital nuns move her to a convent in Scotland. There, Domenica meets the first love of her life. But after tragedy befalls their young family, Domenica brings 5-year-old Matelda back to the family home in Viareggio, where Domenica finds a second chance at love with a childhood friend, and Matelda begins her new life in a strange country.
Adriana Trigiani is the author of many beloved books, including Big Stone Gap and The Shoemaker’s Wife. The Good Left Undone is deliciously told, with fully explored characters, mouthwatering descriptions of Italian food and charming yet quirky towns. What’s exceptional about The Good Left Undone is how seamlessly Trigiani knits together different stories from many places and times, bringing it all together in one poignant and satisfying book.
This is a gorgeously written story about intergenerational love and heartbreak, the futility of regret and the power of a life well lived. It’s also a love letter to Italy and its beautiful and painful history. As a character in the novel says, “This is the place where the worst happened, my deepest pain and highest dream. Both reside in me, but I’ve learned that the love is greater than any hurt.”
Adriana Trigiani’s The Good Left Undone is a gorgeously written story about intergenerational love and trauma and the power of a life well lived.
Poet and former attorney Tara M. Stringfellow makes her fiction debut with Memphis, drawing inspiration from her own family history to craft a wonder of a novel. Stringfellow’s grandfather was the first Black homicide detective in Memphis, Tennessee, and her grandmother was the first Black nurse at Mount Zion Baptist Hospital. Through her poignant and heartfelt prose, Stringfellow honors the spirit of her city as she brings three generations of a Black matriarchal family—and their resilience, determination and endless capacity for love and joy—into the spotlight.
The novel begins in 1995, when Miriam North, her children in tow, flees her husband’s violent outbursts and returns to her ancestral home in Memphis, a change that offers the possibility of spiritually reuniting with Miriam’s maternal roots. The North women have lived in the historically Black neighborhood of Douglass for generations, and despite the devastating scars left by segregation, anti-Black terrorism and domestic violence, these women are unconquerable.
Miriam’s stubborn and loyal sister, August, runs a hair salon attached to the North house, and Miriam’s oldest daughter, Joan, is an exceptionally talented artist with a close bond with her younger sister, Mya. Over the course of the novel, the voices of Miriam, August and Joan intertwine, later incorporating the additional voice of Miriam and August’s mother, Hazel, an activist and adept quilter. Together their stories span nearly 70 years in a nonlinear narrative that reveals the impact and eternality of ancestry.
Stringfellow’s intricately developed details are unrivaled, and the simplest moments make the North family instinctively relatable. It’s not the parties, calamities or deaths that hold a reader’s attention in Memphis, but rather a walk to buy butter pecan ice cream on a Friday afternoon, or a quiet afternoon spent with Joan and her sketchbook. With honesty and genuine affection, Stringfellow captures each of her characters’ unique personalities while preserving their uncanny familial resemblances. Furthermore, Memphis establishes a new standard for the role of a setting in a novel; Memphis is celebrated not only as a place but also as a people, a culture and, most importantly, a community.
Stringfellow has created an irresistible family in the Norths, who are sure to be beloved by readers for the ways in which they persevere.
First-time novelist Tara M. Stringfellow celebrates the city of Memphis as not only a place but also a people, a culture and, most importantly, a community.
Serena Drew is returning to Baltimore after a daytrip to meet her boyfriend’s family. As she and her boyfriend wait for their train home, she thinks she spots her cousin Nicholas Garrett. Her boyfriend is incredulous; how can she be unsure whether or not the man is her cousin? But Serena doesn’t come from the sort of family in which first cousins recognize each other in the wild.
Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama and intricate depictions of characters’ lives. Her astute observations have earned her a Pulitzer Prize (Breathing Lessons) and two turns as a Pulitzer finalist (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist), among other accolades. In French Braid, her skilled storytelling once again takes center stage as she reveals the minor family dramas that have resulted in Serena’s inability to positively identify her cousin. Chapter by chapter, Tyler follows a different member of the Garrett family, beginning with a family vacation in 1959 and ending in spring 2020.
As Tyler turns her attention to each Garrett, she reveals finely honed character portraits. Daughters Lily and Alice are opposites, and their little brother, David, often goes his own way. Mother Mercy searches for her identity as the kids grow up and leave the house, but father Robin is left confused; he has always been content with his home and family exactly as they were.
Each chapter is as well-crafted as a short story and reveals the heart of its central character. Tyler weaves these individual tales together to build something even greater, and like the braid of the novel’s title, this interpersonal family drama becomes more substantial as its pieces combine.
“That’s how families work, too,” says David, reflecting on the lasting effect of a French braid. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” (His wife laughs and asks, “You are finding this out just now?”)
French Braid is a case study of the circumstances and interactions that shape the lives of one family.
Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama, and her skilled storytelling takes center stage in French Braid.
“I never intended to write a story with a cake in it,” says Charmaine Wilkerson, former broadcast journalist and, with Black Cake, first-time novelist. “It just sort of walked into the story.”
And what a remarkable story it is. Wilkerson’s exquisitely written novel is a globe-trotting, multigenerational family saga set in the Caribbean, California, London, Scotland and Rome. Its rich plot—which includes a suspected murder—unfolds at an enthralling pace.
The novel begins with a short, enigmatic prologue set in 1965, then jumps ahead to 2018, when an attorney summons Byron Bennett and his estranged sister, Benny, to listen to a lengthy recording made by their late mother, Eleanor, who divulges startling secrets about her life. “Please forgive me for not telling you any of this before,” she says.
When Benny was growing up, her mother taught her to make the special titular black cake, saying, “This is island food. This is your heritage.” Wilkerson, who grew up in Jamaica and New York and now lives in Rome, explains during a video call that the Caribbean fruitcake known as black cake has long been a family favorite, a descendant of “the good old-fashioned English plum pudding . . . transformed, over time, by tropical ingredients.”
Long ago, Wilkerson’s mother mailed her a copy of her recipe, filled with comments and instructions. Later, after Wilkerson’s mother died, a younger relative asked her for a copy. “I don’t think I’d looked at it for years,” Wilkerson recalls, “but I knew exactly where to find it. I’ve moved a number of times in my life. I am not the neatest person in the world, but I have always kept that recipe in a place where I keep precious things.”
Don’t expect to find the recipe within the pages of this novel, however. Wilkerson didn’t want readers to presume that this is simply a culinary tale. “It’s about the idea that there’s the story you tell about your life, about your family history, about your culture. And then there are the stories that are not told, or concealed, or not fully revealed,” she says. “The cake symbolizes the history of this family, in which the children, who are now grown, really don’t know the half of what their parents went through. Their journey of discovery is going to actually change the way in which they see not only their parents, their family history, but their own relationships.”
Warm, engaging and thoughtful, Wilkerson speaks precisely and with a hint of a lilt in her voice, a remnant from her childhood in Jamaica. Although she repeatedly states that she’s a private person, the handful of memories that she shares are reminiscent of her prose—sensory-filled, memorable and layered with meaning. She recalls her first taste of sugar cane during a school field trip, when the bus broke down next to a sugar cane farm and someone chopped up pieces for the children to taste. She also offers a tantalizing clue to how she ended up living in Rome: “Most people who end up moving to Italy and staying there move for two reasons: It’s either art history, or it’s a love story. You can guess which one.”
Prior to writing this novel, Wilkerson spent several years working in short fiction—notably, flash fiction. The crafting of Black Cake first began when she wrote a short scene about two teenage girls swimming in Caribbean waters in the 1960s. “They were driven by this visceral ambition and connection with nature and this determination to swim, despite the fact that they were afraid,” she says. Next, she wrote some seemingly unrelated scenes set in contemporary times. “At a certain point,” she says, “I realized they were all the same story. And that’s when I knew I had a novel, you know—that I wasn’t just all over the place. I was circling an idea.”
Like a shark, perhaps?
Wilkerson laughs, saying, “That’s me, a shark. I don’t always manage to get a bite of food, but I did this time.”
She certainly has. Black Cake is slated to become a Hulu series with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films and creator Marissa Jo Cerar (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) at the helm—not too shabby for someone who has long dreamed of telling stories. “I’ve always dabbled and written and read,” Wilkerson says, “but the act of writing regularly and making sure that you don’t lose the thread when you have all these different voices is something that takes consistent work. I came to that fairly recently.”
While Wilkerson’s mother gifted her with her prized recipe, her father’s work as a textile artist helped her zero in on her writerly goal. She remembers loving the smell of the dyes in his studio, and admired how he “was able to take art and turn it into a discipline.” After his death in 2013, she took one of his flannel shirts (which she still wears regularly) and finally began to write fiction. “I realized I had to stop thinking that I was being frivolous and recognize that it was work. So, I made some changes in my life.”
As a child, Wilkerson watched her father swim in the ocean toward the horizon until he disappeared, and similar imagery figures prominently in Black Cake. (Byron is a renowned oceanographer whose mother taught him to surf, and who encourages young people to “catch the wave and ride with it.”) “I think that’s what we do in life,” Wilkerson says. “We try to make a plan, but then life happens, and we try to use everything we’ve brought with us.”
Undoubtedly, she has ridden her own wave like a pro. “This is what I have wanted to do for a long time,” she says.
Photo of Charmaine Wilkerson by Rochelle Cheever
Rooted in memories of her family, Charmaine Wilkerson's debut novel explores an island of mysteries and a cake full of surprises.
“I write about foods with a strong sense of place,” notes a character in Black Cake. The same could be said about its debut author, Charmaine Wilkerson, whose exquisitely paced family drama begins on a small unnamed Caribbean island in 1965 and quickly shifts to 2018, where it makes stops in London, Scotland, California and Rome. Readers will quickly find themselves immersed in a mysterious, gripping journey, one that unfolds in brief but bountiful chapters and even includes a suspected murder.
When Eleanor Bennett dies in 2018, she leaves a recording with her lawyer, instructing her two adult children to listen to its full eight hours together. Her son, Byron, is a renowned ocean scientist working on mapping the ocean floor, and his sister, Benny, is a bit of a lost soul who left the family eight years ago. “You children need to know about your family, about where we come from, about how I really met your father,” Eleanor says. “You two need to know about your sister.”
This revelation is shocking; Byron and Benny had no idea that such a sister existed. In addition to her deathbed message, Eleanor has also left a black cake in the freezer for Benny and Byron to share “when the time is right.” The confection, a Caribbean version of plum pudding, is a family favorite and figures prominently—and creatively—throughout the novel.
The sea is a strong presence in Black Cake, its hidden depths paralleling the many veiled events of Eleanor’s past. The innate pull of the ocean, especially warm Caribbean waters, influences and transforms several of Wilkerson’s characters. As the family lawyer muses about Eleanor’s oceanographer son, he says, “The oceans are a challenge. And what about a person’s life? How do you make a map of that?” In Eleanor’s case, that map is full of surprises, and Wilkerson skillfully charts its course, showing “how untold stories shape people’s lives, both when they are withheld and when they are revealed.”
Wilkerson navigates multiple points of view and time frames while addressing—always with just the right touch—issues of domestic violence, race, sexual identity, colonialism, prejudice and more. Fans of family dramas by Ann Patchett, Brit Bennett and Karen Joy Fowler should take note. Black Cake marks the launch of a writer to watch, one who masterfully plumbs the unexpected depths of the human heart.
Juhea Kim’s accomplished first novel, Beasts of a Little Land, opens in 1917, deep in the frozen Korean wilderness, where a penniless hunter saves a young Japanese military officer from a vicious tiger. The act sets in motion a story that spans half a century and explores the peninsula’s complex history of Japanese occupation, multiple wars and South Korea’s anti-communism purges of the early 1960s.
The novel artfully follows the life of Jade, a girl from an impoverished family who goes to work as a servant for a courtesan, Madame Silver. There she meets two other young women: quietly beautiful Luna and brash, outspoken Lotus. The three eventually come to Seoul, where they study the art of pleasing men at one of the city’s most celebrated and cosmopolitan houses.
Jade’s wit and intelligence take her to the very peak of high society and even into the Korean film industry, while Luna and Lotus struggle through careers marred by sexual assault and drug use. As the three women strive for independence, they are continually disappointed by the men closest to them, including loyal gang leader JungHo, who befriends Jade when they are children, and ambitious rickshaw driver HanChol, who becomes Jade’s lover but refuses to marry her. Jade and Lotus spurn the lavish attentions of wealthy but superficial SungSoo, and at the same time, SungSoo’s school friend MyungBo tries to involve Jade and JungHo in his revolutionary plans for Korean independence from Japan.
One of Kim’s core strengths is casting 20th-century Korea’s civic and social history as vital while never losing sight of her characters’ emotions. As the paths of her characters twist and cross, albeit with far too many coincidences, and their fortunes rise and fall, she keeps the weight of the personal and political in perfect balance. Beasts of a Little Land is epic in range but intimate in emotional depth, sure to appeal to readers of historical fiction who prize a well-wrought character.
Juhea Kim’s debut novel is epic in range but intimate in emotional depth, sure to appeal to readers of historical fiction who prize a well-wrought character.
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The Arcanum Training Institute, where students master fantastical abilities as they float high above the clouds, is the setting of bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton’s first middle grade novel, The Marvellers. Take a peek at some of the wonders that await as Clayton reveals her inspirations, Easter eggs and more.