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Long before she was the iconic Jackie Onassis, and more than a decade before she became Jackie Kennedy, 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. 

Ann Mah
Author Ann Mah

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. 

In bringing Jacqueline Bouvier's transformative Paris interlude to the page, Ann Mah offers readers a lovely, immersive visit to a vanished city.

Katherine St. John is a pro at crafting escapist thrillers: Her often gorgeous protagonists find themselves in remote settings, surrounded by people they’re not sure they can trust. It all makes for loads of nail-biting suspense as said protagonists realize they’d better figure out how to, well, escape before something truly terrible happens. 

Fans of her previous books, The Lion’s Den and The Siren, will devour St. John’s latest, The Vicious Circle, which conjures up that same life-or-death urgency amid opulence. This time, the setting is a wellness center named Xanadu, deep in the Mexican jungle. The luxurious compound offers much fodder for suspicion. (The bedrooms have no doors? What’s with all the chanting?) It also serves as the locus for St. John’s exploration of shared beliefs-turned-toxic groupthink and the fuzzy line between enigmatic mysticism and subtle manipulation. 

Former model Sveta Bentzen is shocked to learn that her estranged uncle, the famous self-help guru and Xanadu founder Paul Sayres, left his entire estate to her instead of his wife, Kali. All her life, Sveta has felt that she’s not enough, either for her loving but distant mother or her wealthy fiancé’s influential and scornful family. When she learns of her uncle’s death, she grieves the relationship they didn’t have and is determined to make the long, treacherous journey to Xanadu for the memorial service Kali will host there. Sveta’s confidence falters when lawyer (and handsome former flame) Lucas joins the trip, but she perseveres, hoping to reach an understanding with Kali while Lucas handles the finances. The Xanadu residents welcome them, but Sveta suspects that hostility may lurk beneath Kali’s serenity—and that the circumstances of her uncle’s death may have been misrepresented, too.

Fans of “The White Lotus’ and Nine Perfect Strangers will relish Sveta’s race to find a way to escape Xanadu before it’s too late. Her hard-won journey to realizing her self-worth is as compelling as it is deliciously ironic: Who knew all you had to do to win confidence, love and inner peace is escape a creepy wellness center?

Fans of "The White Lotus" and Nine Perfect Strangers will relish Katherine St. John's latest escapist thriller.

Think life is full of bureaucracy? Try death! According to Therese Beharrie’s A Ghost in Shining Armor, there’s a whole system at work once someone dies to help their soul move on to whatever comes next. For some, this means lingering as ghosts, visible only to rare humans like Gemma Daniels who help them resolve unfinished business. For others, death comes with an opportunity to take on an assignment . . . and maybe change their fate. This is what happens to Levi Walker: If he succeeds as a guardian angel, he”ll come back to life. And the person he’s been assigned to help just happens to be Gemma. 

Gemma’s not freaked out at being approached by a ghost, given all the spirits she’s helped since she saw her first ghost at age 18. But unfortunately, her and Levi’s first meeting goes a little off the rails. If Gemma doesn’t acknowledge ghosts, they stay insubstantial and invisible to everyone but her. But if she acknowledges the spirit—touches them, talks to them or points them out to someone else, they become corporeal and visible to everyone. And because she accidentally acknowledges Levi, not realizing he’s a ghost, he now appears alive, leading to great confusion from her friends and family about the new man in her life. That scrutiny is the last thing she wants as she grapples with new information about her past: She has a twin sister (the heroine of Beharrie’s previous romance, And They Lived Happily Ever After). Levi was sent to help Gemma process the discovery that her twin was left in foster care while Gemma was adopted. 

If this premise sounds a little zany, that’s because it is. There are plenty of hijinks, starting with Gemma and Levi’s impulsive meet cute kiss and continuing through fake dates, awkward cohabitation moments and all the banter and snark you’d expect from a rom-com. But Beharrie includes deeper character insights that balance the fluff. A Ghost in Shining Armor is as richly imagined as it is deeply moving, while being quite a lot of fun, as well. The tone can be a bit uneven in spots as Beharrie balances the humor and the pathos, but her characters are endearing enough to carry readers through.

A Ghost in Shining Armor is as richly imagined as it is deeply moving—and quite a lot of fun, as well.

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.

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.

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 1919 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. 

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.

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