When your heritage and ancestry are the reasons for your oppression, to whom can you turn in order to survive, but to family? Hokeah’s exceptional debut novel follows a Native American man’s life through the many leaves of his family tree.
Serpell’s award-winning debut novel, The Old Drift, was a genre-defying epic about three generations of Zambian families, and her purposely disconcerting follow-up will reinforce readers’ appreciation of her daring experimentation and keen talent.
The year’s best fiction included a remarkable number of groundbreaking story collections—some deeply interconnected like Oscar Hokeah’s and Jonathan Escoffery’s, others bound mostly by theme and setting, such as Manuel Muñoz’s. We also reveled in several major releases from well-established authors, including Celeste Ng, Ian McEwan, Yiyun Li and Gabrielle Zevin.
Sophomore novels from Hernan Diaz, Namwali Serpell, Douglas Stuart and Elif Batuman surpassed the high bars of their debuts, and first-timers Tess Gunty, Sarah Thankam Mathews and Bonnie Garmus made a hell of a splash.
In Lauren Groff’s Matrix, 17-year-old Marie de France becomes prioress of a run-down abbey in 12th-century England. Ill-suited to a life of privation, Marie struggles in her new role, but she forms strong bonds with the women in her charge, and the abbey begins to flourish. When tensions rise between the abbey and the outside world, Marie’s work and leadership are challenged. Fans of historical fiction will savor this gripping, atmospheric novel, which poses questions related to faith and female desire that will inspire great discussion among readers.
Anthony Doerr’s ambitious, sweeping Cloud Cuckoo Land follows a group of characters across the centuries, all of whom endure transformational events and share a love for an ancient tale called “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” Doerr tells the stories of Anna and Omeir, two youngsters in Constantinople in the 1400s; Zeno, an octogenarian librarian in modern-day Idaho; and Konstance, a teenage girl traveling on a spacecraft in the 22nd century. Inventive and accomplished, Doerr’s novel is an unforgettable tribute to the power of stories and the endurance of the human spirit.
Set in the 1970s in Illinois, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads chronicles the lives of the Hildebrandts, a suburban family going through a period of change. Russ Hildebrandt, an associate pastor and church leader, has decided to split from his wife, Marion. Their daughter, Becky, and son Perry are dabbling in drugs and a more radical lifestyle, and Clem, the oldest son, makes a drastic choice that shocks the family. Franzen’s wonderfully detailed, emotionally intimate novel is satisfying on every level, with marriage, morality and religion among the book’s many talking points.
Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young Black woman, delves into her disturbing family history in Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Brought up in a family of formidable women in Georgia, Ailey takes inspiration from the great activist W.E.B. Du Bois while wrestling with her heritage and selfhood. As she learns the truth about her family tree and the impact of slavery on her forebears, Ailey draws closer to self-acceptance. Jeffers explores issues of race, history and female relationships through this luminous story of a woman coming into her own.
Tackle some of the most acclaimed blockbuster novels of recent years with your book club.
Louise Kennedy, chef of nearly 30 years and author of the short story collection The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac, emerges with a debut novel that will fill every historical fiction fan with gratitude. Trespasses exposes the crushing realities of Northern Ireland during the “troubles” while paying respect to the people who found their way through the destruction.
The novel centers on Cushla Lavery, a Catholic teacher living near Belfast who also works part time in her family’s pub. The sectarian violence between Republicans (largely Catholics) and loyalists (largely Protestants) has become overwhelmingly ingrained in society. The school’s headmaster even insists that Cushla’s 7- and 8-year-old students devote time each morning to reporting and commenting on the day’s most horrific news, from bombings to internments.
Quicker than she can make sense of, Cushla forms new relationships that drive her personal life into the public eye. There’s Michael Agnew, an older, married Protestant barrister with whom Cushla begins a surreptitious affair. There’s also Davy McGeown, a child in Cushla’s class whose father is brutally beaten. Disaster soon becomes inevitable, but no matter how close Cushla’s life comes to collapse, Kennedy’s unyielding narrative voice exhibits heart-wrenching impassivity, forcing readers to grapple with their own prejudices and morals.
The novel’s brilliance lies in Kennedy’s commitment to nuance. Simple definitions of “right” and “wrong” are nonexistent in Cushla’s world, as Kennedy is more concerned with contextual authenticity: How do our choices affect our environments, and conversely, how do those environments shape the choices we make? Reading Trespasses is an exercise in trust, in letting oneself accept the transient failures of an individual while holding fast to their implicit humanity.
Impeccably written, Trespasses is a story that every reader will internalize differently. In only 304 pages, it achieves the complexity of a multigenerational saga without sacrificing the striking intricacies of its central protagonist’s story.
Reading Trespasses is an exercise in trust, in letting oneself accept the transient failures of an individual while holding fast to their implicit humanity.
Kliph Nesteroff’s We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy is an intriguing look at how Native Americans have influenced the world of comedy. Starting with the Wild West shows of the 1800s, Nesteroff chronicles the presence and impact of Native comedic performers through the decades. His lively narrative draws on in-depth research and interviews with today’s up-and-coming comedians. Entertainment stereotypes and representation in media are but a few of the book’s rich discussion topics.
Set in Nashville in the 1920s, Margaret Verble’s novel When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky tells the story of a Cherokee woman named Two Feathers who performs as a horse-diver at the Glendale Park Zoo. After an accident occurs while Two is performing, strange events take place at the zoo, including sightings of ghosts. Two finds a friend in Clive the zookeeper, and together they try to make sense of the odd goings-on at Glendale Park. An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Verble paints an extraordinary portrait of connection in defiance of racism in this moving novel.
In Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, Nicole Eustace builds a fascinating narrative around a historical incident: the killing of a Seneca hunter by white fur traders in 1722 Pennsylvania. The murder occurred right before a summit between the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and the English colonists, and it heightened tensions between the two sides at a fragile moment. Eustace brings the era and its seminal events to vivid life as she examines Native attitudes toward retribution and reparation.
Cree Canadian author Michelle Good’s novel Five Little Indians follows a group of First Nation youngsters who must find their way in the world after growing up during the 1960s in a Canadian residential school, a boarding school for First Nation children designed to isolate them from their culture. As adults in Vancouver, British Columbia, Lucy, Howie, Clara, Maisie and Kenny struggle to make lives for themselves and escape painful memories of the past. Clara joins the American Indian Movement, while Lucy dreams of building a future with Kenny. Good explores the repercussions of Canada’s horrific residential school system through the divergent yet unified stories of her characters, crafting a multilayered novel filled with yearning and hope.
These Indigenous stories are perfect for your book club, from a history of Native comedians to the true story of a murder in colonial Pennsylvania.
Throughout history, female healers have been cast out, feared and labeled as witches, even though their work in herbalism and midwifery helped shape medicine as we know it today. In fiction, the witch—that wise, rebellious female character—can be even more disruptive, her healing gifts even more supernaturally powerful.
T. Kingfisher’s dark (but still extremely funny) fantasy novel is full of female characters who carve out power for themselves: protagonist Princess Marra, who cherishes the peace of her convent home; the Sister Apothecary at Marra’s convent; and two frighteningly powerful fairy godmothers. But the only witch of the bunch is the dust-wife, and folks, she is an icon. A necromancer who tends a graveyard, the dust-wife can talk to the dead, keeps a demon-possessed chicken as a familiar, and agrees to help kill Marra’s sister’s abusive husband even though she believes their quest will fail—because wicked men should be held accountable. Despite her ruthlessly realistic view of the world, the dust-wife values the optimism of other characters, even Marra’s fairy godmother, Agnes, a sweet older dear who gives only good health as a blessing and frets over baby chicks. The dust-wife and Agnes bicker their way to becoming ride-or-die besties, and I would read an entire series about their adventures.
If you look up charming in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure you’ll find the entry illustrated with a portrait of the titular hero of Phoebe Wahl’s delightful picture book, Little Witch Hazel. In four short tales—one for each season of the year—Wahl captures the close-knit forest community to which Little Witch Hazel belongs. In “The Blizzard,” we see Little Witch Hazel make her rounds, visiting a chipmunk with a toothache, a mole with an injured paw and Mrs. Rabbit and her four new kits. Wahl also conveys how the residents of Mosswood Forest care for Little Witch Hazel: Her friends Wendell and Nadine encourage her to take a much-needed break from her errands on an idyllic summer day, and later in the year, Otis the owl rescues her from a fierce snowstorm. With a classical tone, Wahl offers a still-revolutionary portrayal of a female healer and the difference she makes in her community.
Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders fictionalizes the true story of a small English village that was nearly overcome by the bubonic plague in 1665. When the local rector convinces the town to close their gate to prevent the plague’s spread, young widow Anna Frith finds herself quarantined with a few hundred of her neighbors, watching their numbers dwindle over the course of an extraordinary year. Among those neighbors are Mem and Anys Gowdie, an aunt and niece whose extensive knowledge of herblore gets them accused of, then executed for, witchcraft. When Anna visits the Gowdies’ abandoned house shortly after, she realizes that all of their dried herbs and foraged weeds, their tinctures and potions—the very things that had gotten them killed—are what had kept the pair from catching the Black Death before their violent ends. As Anna learns the Gowdies’ trade and brings their healing knowledge to the rest of the town, the novel becomes a moving portrait of women’s community-centered heroism in the face of unjust persecution.
Tenured professor Diana Bishop is a brilliant woman—a formidable entity in her own right—but she is also a witch with impressive magical powers. The hero of Deborah Harkness’ bestselling All Souls trilogy turned away from the magical community after her parents’ untimely death, swearing off her family legacy and instead creating a name for herself in academia. But her worlds crash together when she discovers a long-lost enchanted manuscript, which awakens an enormous power within her. Diana is the first person to have seen the manuscript in 150 years, and suddenly the whole magical community is after her. A centuries-old vampire named Matthew Clairmont becomes her protector as she navigates a dangerous world that she had purposely avoided for most of her life. Hunted for her power and knowledge, Diana realizes that she can no longer hide from her destiny. She must embrace her power, her magical legacy and herself—her whole self.
Human interdependence is at the heart of Leni Zumas’ 2018 novel, which shifts among the stories of four adult women and one girl, all living in a small Oregon fishing town. But this is no gentle sisterhood novel, as Red Clocks finds female characters pitted against one another in an America where reproductive freedoms have been severely limited and single-parent adoption is outlawed. Gin Percival, a reclusive healer who’s feared as a witch by superstitious fishermen, lives firmly outside the expectations placed on women: She’s messy and smells like onions, prefers animals over people and is “uninterested in being pleasing to other persons.” She also provides herbal remedies and menstrual care for the women who visit her, which means she’s operating outside the law. Through Gin’s story, which culminates in her arrest and subsequent trial, Zumas draws a connection between the 17th-century practice of blaming women for any misfortune and our contemporary society’s concern with women who buck social norms and don’t care one bit what you think about it.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
All hail the menders, rebel healers and witchy women.
There’s a certain joy in opening a Kate Atkinson novel—a feeling that every element matters and that each surprise and delight will ultimately make perfect sense. Her latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety, takes us to London in 1926. The shadows of the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic weigh heavily on the world. In response to these recent horrors, London’s nightlife is alive, well and effervescent.
Enter Nellie Coker—club owner, mother, notorious schemer—who is just about to be released from prison. Everyone is curious to see her, though she rarely lets people get close. London’s Soho neighborhood serves as the backdrop for Nellie’s life, as well as for the lives of her sons and the people who work for her and against her. Each chapter shifts focus, showing a bit of a character’s story, a glimpse of an encounter, a fragment of a person trying to exist in a complex world. We even get a fascinating look at characters who work in law enforcement.
Slowly, these moments overlap. Secrets, stories, debts and more come to the surface. As the fragments of the novel coalesce, readers witness interconnection, reverberations and consequences. Patience is required to see this puzzle through to its end, but the long game pays off, and there’s magic in seeing the whole unexpected picture.
There’s also pleasure in how Atkinson seamlessly integrates historical figures and moments into her story. Nellie Coker is a fictionalized version of “Night Club Queen” Kate Meyrick, but the novel moves beyond its inspiration, allowing the imaginative possibilities to guide the tale. Other cultural and literary figures are bandied about in conversation, which firmly establishes the novel’s time and place.
The history and setting add nuance to Shrines of Gaiety, but Atkinson’s characters and their choices, curiosities and corruptions keep the story unfolding, making the resolution worth every second.
CORRECTION 10/25/2022: An earlier version of this review listed the incorrect year for the flu pandemic, which occurred in 1918.
Patience is required to see Kate Atkinson's latest puzzle through to its end, but the long game pays off, and there's magic in seeing the whole unexpected picture.
Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe (Middle England, The Rotters’ Club) isn’t so much a work of fiction as a fictionalization of some true events. The book covers the period when Billy Wilder, one of the greatest screenwriters and directors in old Hollywood, helmed one of his final films, Fedora (1978), about a Greta Garbo-esque former movie star. (One thing about reading not-quite-novels is that they inevitably send you down rabbit holes on Wikipedia and IMDb.) The book is narrated by a Greco British woman named Calista Frangopoulou, who serves as an assistant during the shoot and, later, earns renown as a film-score composer herself. She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, so perhaps we can assume she’s fictitious.
When the book opens, middle-aged Calista is living with her husband and one of their twin daughters in London. Her daughter is going through a bit of a crisis, and this jogs Calista’s memory of a time when she was about her daughter’s age. In the late 1970s, Calista was carefree, so much so that she and her friend swanned into a swanky Hollywood restaurant to have dinner with the eminent director while wearing cutoff jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops. Calista even yawns in the middle of the meal, which Wilder finds charming and inspiring.
But Coe’s book isn’t so concerned with capturing a side of Hollywood or the process of moviemaking as it is with summing up a life and a fading era. The studio system under which Wilder and his peers have flourished is dying, and though he will live many more years after making Fedora, his glory days are over. But bitterness isn’t part of Wilder’s makeup, which is especially remarkable when you know that he barely escaped the Nazis, who slaughtered the rest of his family. Coe emphasizes the director’s kindness, humility and graciousness, such as in one of Calista’s most vivid memories, when Wilder allows himself to be persuaded by their driver to pause at a humble farm on their way to a film set; once there, they happily sample some of the farmer’s brie.
Wilder may be famously hard on his actors, but he’s also hard on himself. Through middle-aged Calista’s perspective, we hear about him wanting to show up the “kids with beards,” like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, but when Spielberg directs Schindler’s List, a film Wilder wanted to make himself (this is true!), the older man acknowledges it as a masterpiece.
Beautifully written and filled with compassion, humor and an abundance of knowledge about old Hollywood, Mr. Wilder and Me sheds light on lives that aren’t perfect but still well lived.
In Mr. Wilder and Me, bitterness isn't part of Billy Wilder's makeup, as Jonathan Coe emphasizes the director's kindness and humility.
Long before she was the iconic Jackie Onassis, and more than a decade before she glamorized the role of first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier was a shy student at Vassar College. She’d grown up with extraordinary privilege—she was named “Queen Debutante” in 1947—yet she was already scarred: by her parents’ messy, public divorce; her mother’s rigid expectations; her stepfather’s varying fortunes; and her father’s depression. At 20, Jacqueline set off to Paris for a yearlong program. She lived with a genteel but threadbare French family in the 16th arrondissement, spoke only French, studied at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po, attended lectures and performances, and frequented Montparnasse cafes.
Jacqueline’s transformative French year is the subject of Ann Mah’s Jacqueline in Paris. Narrated by an older Jackie, it’s a coming-of-age novel structured around the four quarters of the school year, beginning with Jacqueline’s six-week stay in Grenoble for immersion classes to prepare her for Paris.
Once she gets acquainted with Paris and her French family, Jacqueline is quickly enchanted. Still, it’s only been a few years since World War II, so deprivation and shortages are widespread, coffee and sugar are still rationed, and political uncertainty lingers as the Cold War gets underway. And WWII had a serious effect on her host family: Her French mother, the Comtesse de Renty, worked underground in the French Resistance. Late in the war, an informant turned in the Comtesse and her husband, and both were sent to concentration camps, where her husband died.
Though Mah mainly remains true to the historical timeline, she adds intrigue and fizzy romance with a speculative connection to a young American writer, Jack Marquand. Jack is a Harvard man, handsome, talented, writing for the Atlantic and working on a book, though he also seems to carry a secret, or maybe several secrets. Jacqueline struggles to sort out what these secrets mean for him, and for her.
The novel’s narration is intimate, full of layered interiority about Jacqueline’s loneliness, her changing understanding of the world and her possible place within it. If Mah’s Jacqueline sometimes feels a little too perfect—sensitive to everyone around her, to Paris’ beauty and class details, and a little too witty for a 20-year-old—it’s a small quibble. The older Jackie’s narration also helps to make the younger more believable.
Jacqueline in Paris beautifully evokes postwar Paris. The details are exquisite (for instance, the lacy appearance of thinly sliced roast beef that’s been spoiled by worms), and Mah’s writing shines in its close attention to place and sensory details. In bringing Jacqueline Bouvier’s transformative Paris interlude to the page, Mah offers readers a lovely, immersive visit to a vanished city.
CORRECTION: September 28, 2022 A previous version of this article misconstrued the amount of time between Jacqueline’s year abroad and her marriage to John F. Kennedy. They were married four years later, in 1953.
In bringing Jacqueline Bouvier's transformative Paris interlude to the page, Ann Mah offers readers a lovely, immersive visit to a vanished city.
In 2019, Ann Mah published an article in the New York Times about 20-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier’s year in Paris as a college junior. As Mah traced Jacqueline’s days up and down the streets of Paris and into its museums and cafes, she revealed a new side of both the American icon and the postwar city. The article was the inspiration for Jacqueline in Paris, Mah’s novel about this formative year.
Mah shares a closer look at the process of fictionalizing this story—and the incredible moment when Jacqueline’s own voice began to come through.
A couple of years ago in Paris, I walked by a stately art nouveau building in the 16th arrondissement. On the wall hung a plaque that proclaimed: “Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis née Lee-Bouvier (1929–1994), widow of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America, lived in this building as a student from 1949 to 1950.” It stopped me in my tracks.
By this point I’d lived in Paris off and on for a few years, and I had a pretty good sense of the famous Americans who had lived in and loved the City of Light—but I hadn’t realized they included the former first lady. As I gazed at the apartment building, which was large and elegant, with a limestone facade that blended seamlessly with its neighbors, I tried to imagine her as a student, 20 years old, pushing open the heavy wooden front door, buying a newspaper at the corner kiosk, dashing down the steps of the metro. Suddenly I was overcome with a desire to know more about this young woman who had decided to study in France only five years after World War II. What had drawn her to Paris? With whom—and how—did she live? And how had her junior year abroad affected the rest of her life, if at all?
I began writing a travel article, retracing Jacqueline’s footsteps in Paris. At the library, I checked out a stack of biographies, scouring them for details about her year abroad, which were few and far between. I re-created some of her adventures: sipping cocktails at the Ritz Bar, riding horses in the Bois de Boulogne and visiting Reid Hall, the Parisian center of American study abroad since the 1920s.
I interviewed Jacqueline’s French host sister, Claude du Granrut, who spoke of the bitter cold of the winter of 1950, describing the earmuffs, scarves and sweaters they wore at home to keep warm. Their rambling apartment lacked heat: “It was broken,” she said. “Jacqueline put on gloves to study. I remember her always being covered up.” She told me that she and Jacqueline never spoke a word of English together, which I found especially touching, because it illustrated how deeply Jacqueline cared about learning the French language.
In du Granrut’s memoir, Le piano et le violoncelle, I read more about her mother (and Jacqueline’s host mother), the Comtesse de Renty. She and her husband had been Resistance spies during the war; in the final days before the liberation of Paris, they were captured and sent to concentration camps, where her husband died. The war left her widowed and impoverished, with two daughters and a grandson to support, and as a result she had taken in boarders, including Jacqueline and two other girls studying abroad through Smith College.
Piecing together these details of Jacqueline’s time in France felt both thrilling and painstaking. And yet my original questions about her still lingered. It occurred to me that the story of Jacqueline’s junior year abroad in Paris reached far beyond the scope of a travel article. How could I learn more? Famously guarded, Jacqueline did not grant many interviews, and most of her personal letters remain private. As a result, her story has largely been told through the memories and observations of others. But the bright, adventurous young woman I had gleaned through snippets had her own voice, and in this novel I have tried to let her speak.
At first I heard her voice like a whisper, perhaps her famous little half-whisper. But after listening to the French radio interviews she gave as first lady—in which she spoke fluent French with clear precision—I realized she must have deployed that girlish tone as a guise, a protective cloak. Perhaps such subterfuge was necessary for a young woman of her milieu, one socially poised but financially precarious, dependent on her looks, charm and ability to please. Her self-assured voice in French challenged the caricature of Mrs. John F. Kennedy and allowed me to glimpse a quick, clever side of her. I couldn’t forget it, and in the end it guided me, even in moments of doubt and frustration, until Jacqueline seemed to be talking to me directly.
Much of this book was written during the early days of the pandemic, which meant I couldn’t visit France—my family and I barely left home—but every afternoon I retreated to my car, which was parked in the underground garage of my apartment building, opened my laptop and traveled to Paris. I tagged along with Jacqueline to museums and jazz nightclubs, country chateaux and cafes, and on long brisk walks through narrow cobblestone streets, until history started coming to life on the page and in my senses. I smelled the heavy smoke of her cigarettes, swallowed the icy brine of a raw oyster at Christmas, soaked up the delicate warmth of an early spring day in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I wept with her, too, when she left Paris and came to accept that she would never live there again.
Yes, Jacqueline left France in the end. I don’t think that’s a spoiler, right? Most of us are familiar with the triumph and tragedy of the rest of her life, playing out as it did upon a global stage and recorded in history. But it was her year in Paris, the academic year of 1949 to 1950, that she called ‘the high point in my life,’ and it has been an honor and a privilege to accompany her there and allow her voice to guide this story. I don’t pretend to know the woman who was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, but I do feel a kinship with the 20-year-old American student in Paris named Jacqueline—and she is young, and happy, and carefree.
Walk the streets of postwar Paris with travel writer and novelist Ann Mah, whose new book reveals a transformative year in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
From the Greek isle of Corfu to Washington’s Whidbey Island, hope can always be found in friendship.
★ Where the Wandering Ends
The latest novel from bestselling author and three-time Emmy Award-winning producer and journalist Yvette Manessis Corporon is a work of incredible depth, brimming with turmoil, compassion and remarkable historical detail.
Set on the gorgeous Greek island of Corfu, Where the Wandering Ends is a multigenerational, decades-spanning story that begins in 1946, when Greece appears to be on the verge of civil war. Despite the brewing unrest, life in Katerina’s village of Pelekito remains calm. She even has the opportunity to go to school, unlike provincial girls in older generations.
As the conflict between communists and monarchists escalates, the war eventually reaches Pelekito, and the villagers are forced to flee. Katerina is separated from her best friend, Marco, but they both promise to someday return.
Corporon’s characters are indelible and authentic. Katerina’s father, Laki, is horrified by the divisions in his country: “Greek killing Greek. Cousin killing cousin. Brother killing brother. . . . Laki never would have imagined that his own people would turn against each other the way they had.” Meanwhile, Marco’s mother, Yianna, holds fast to the stories told by her own mother, who was a maid to Princess Alice, wife of Prince Andrew, both of whom were exiled from Greece after the Greco-Turkish War of 1922.
Written with a perceptive eye, Where the Wandering Ends considers the challenges faced by people during wartime and highlights the determination to survive despite painful circumstances. Corfu’s beauty, which Corporon describes in sumptuous detail, is juxtaposed against the turbulence and devastation caused by war. Fascinating historical facts and references to mythological Greek tales intertwine with moving scenes, tension-building plot points and surprising revelations to create a powerful, soaring story. This is a spectacular novel about the enduring devotion of family and the steadfast loyalty between friends.
Bestselling author Sandra Byrd blends romance, laughter, community and family secrets in her novel Heirlooms, a delightful story of uplifting female friendships.
After her husband’s death, Choi Eunhee, a Korean woman living in the United States, turns to Helen Devries for help. It’s 1958, and both women are Navy widows. While living together in Helen’s farmhouse on Whidbey Island, Washington, the women assist each other through their losses and develop a lifelong friendship.
In the present day, Helen’s dying wish is that her granddaughter Cassidy Quinn will pack up the attic at the Whidbey Island house with help from Eunhee’s granddaughter Grace Kim. While going through Helen’s hope chest, Cassidy and Grace discover a family secret.
Meanwhile, Cassidy must work to save her grandmother’s property from foreclosure, so she turns to her ex-boyfriend Nick for help. Helen’s house was the setting of many beloved summers for Cassidy, and she dreams of reinstating her grandmother’s garden to its former glory.
Helen and Eunhee’s friendship is much like the garden, tended with loving care over many years. As the women draw faith and strength from each other, their bond becomes akin to sisterhood. From this foundation grows Cassidy and Grace’s own connection, and the two young women learn to lean on each other throughout Cassidy’s fight for her grandmother’s house and garden and as Grace begins to doubt her chosen career path.
With warmth and sensitivity, Heirlooms examines the challenges faced by immigrants living in the United States, and the difficulties for women seeking health care and financial security for both themselves and their children throughout American history. As friends become family, readers will marvel at the strength found in community and the deep connections that can exist between generations.
Authors Yvette Manessis Corporon and Sandra Byrd intertwine past and present in two stories of love, courage and survival.
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Laura Amy Schlitz’s Newbery Medal-winning novel, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, immersed readers in the sights, sounds and smells of medieval life, warts and all. Her masterfully constructed Amber & Clay transports young readers to ancient Greece, a place with serious inequality and injustice where young people could become part of history and where ghosts and gods walk the mortal world.
Three-time National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin’s Undefeated charts the rise of Jim Thorpe, Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon and All-American fullback for the Carlisle Indians, one of the most innovative football teams ever to take the field. Despite its focus, readers need not be sports fans to enjoy this book.