What do you look for in your summer reading? Terms like “beach read” tend to connote light, frothy stories—especially from genres like romance, mystery, and chick lit—but for me a summer read is any book that happens to be totally absorbing, whatever its length. These two novels I recently read are perfect for the summer because you can sink right into them. Whether a trio of widows in postwar Germany or a dysfunctional family in modern-day New York City, the characters and setting come fully to life and tempt you to settle in on a sofa or a beach towel and stay for a while.
The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
Like Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning and Caroline Lea’s When the Sky Fell Apart, this is a female-centered World War II story that focuses on a lesser-known aspect of history. The main characters are three German women, Marianne, Benita and Ania, who were aligned with different sides in the Nazism vs. Resistance conflict but have all suffered grave losses. These widows band together to raise their children at Burg von Lingenfels, the dilapidated ancestral castle of Marianne’s late husband’s family, but as the years pass regrets and unburied secrets start to come between them.
Apart from a short prologue from 1938 and a final section that jumps ahead to 1991, the novel is mainly set in 1945–50. I appreciated the look at postwar Germany, a period you rarely encounter in fiction. Refugees, rape victims, and Russian soldiers are everywhere, while American propaganda heaps shame on Germans for supporting Hitler. As with Barbara Yelin’s Irmina, though, there’s an acknowledgment here that it was never a clear-cut matter of pure evil or utter ignorance; “They had known but not known,” is how Shattuck puts it.
What is most intriguing to watch are the shifting relationships between the three main characters. Marianne, as the widow of one of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Hitler, feels a compulsion to rescue her fellow widows from work camps and to keep the history of the Resistance alive. When her friends disappoint her—Benita falls in love with a former Nazi officer; Ania admits to a past she’d rather forget—Marianne doesn’t know how to absorb the shocks without judgment. A black-and-white thinker, she has trouble seeing life’s gray areas. Only in her old age is she finally able to realize that people are not simply “good or bad, true or false. They have been laid bare, a collection of choices and circumstances.”
You might think that all the WWII stories have been told by now, yet this novel feels fresh and revelatory. I found it both melancholy and hopeful, with strong characters and a haunting atmosphere:
The next week, a heatwave settled over Burg Lingenfels, a shaggy animal brushing against the hills, panting along the river, quieting the birds and making the castle sweat. The ditches were alive with milkweed, nettles, and creeping phlox. In the warmth, the forest looked soft and dense, a black lump against blue sky.
The Women of the Castle was released in the UK by Zaffre, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing, on May 18th. My thanks to Imogen Sebba for the free copy for review.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Leo Plumb has really blown it this time. He’s had problems with drugs and womanizing before, but this time he got behind the wheel of a car after his cousin’s wedding reception with coke and alcohol in his system and a nineteen-year-old waitress, Matilda Rodriguez, at his side. Matilda is injured in the ensuing accident, and after her hefty payout it looks like the four Plumb siblings’ collective trust fund, “the nest,” will be severely diminished.
They’re all counting on this money: Melody to send her twin daughters to a good college; Jack to save his floundering antiques business; and Bea to keep her afloat until she can write a long-delayed novel to follow up on the success of her “Archie” short stories (based on a figure suspiciously similar to Leo).
The short chapters switch between the siblings as they tweak their plans for the future. The novel also spends time with Melody’s twins, Nora and Louise, who at 16 are just figuring out what they want from their lives; and with Matilda and her new friend Vinnie as they cope with permanent injuries. All of these characters feel like real people who might be in your neighborhood or your extended family. I especially liked Stephanie, the old girlfriend Leo returns to after his wife finally kicks him out.
In places this reminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Delia Ephron’s Siracusa, and especially Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love due to a subplot about a stolen sculpture. There’s a rather silly set piece involving the sculpture later on; leaving that aside, I thought this was a compelling story about what happens when the truth comes out and we must readjust our expectations. Realistic rather than rosy, this is a novel about letting go. A nest is, of course, also a home, so for as much as this seems to be about money, it is really more about family and how we reclaim our notion of home after a major upheaval.
The Nest was released in paperback in the UK by The Borough Press on June 1st. My thanks to Emilie Chambeyron for the free copy for review.
Let’s hear it for the ladies! In 2016 women writers accounted for 9 out of my 15 top fiction picks, 12 out of my 15 nonfiction selections, and 8 of the 10 runners-up below. That’s 73%. The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any full reviews linked in. Many of these have already appeared on the blog in some form over the course of the year.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Atwood looks more like a good witch every year, and here she works her magic on The Tempest to produce the most satisfying volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare series yet. There’s a really clever play-within-the-play-within-the-play thing going on, and themes of imprisonment and performance resonate in multiple ways.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church: In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: The Freemans are raising Charlie, a chimpanzee, as part of their family for a Toneybee Institute experiment and teaching him to communicate via sign language. This is a rich and unsettling story of human–human interactions, even more so than human–animal interactions; it’s a great first novel and I will follow Greenidge’s career with interest.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey: Ivey’s intricate second novel weaves together diaries, letters, photographs, and various other documents and artifacts to tell the gently supernatural story of an exploratory mission along Alaska’s Wolverine River in 1885 and its effects through to the present day. I can highly recommend this rollicking adventure tale to fans of historical fiction and magic realism.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character’s past and future, this has all O’Farrell’s trademark insight into family and romantic relationships, as well as her gorgeous prose and precise imagery. I have always felt that O’Farrell expertly straddles the (perhaps imaginary) line between literary and popular fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: This deep study of blended family dynamics starts with an early 1960s christening party Los Angeles policeman Fix Keating is throwing for his younger daughter, Franny; we see the aftermath of that party in the lives of six step-siblings in the decades to come. This is a sophisticated and atmospheric novel I would not hesitate to recommend to literary fiction fans in general and Patchett fans in particular.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Jessie Burton, Tracy Chevalier and all others who try to write historical fiction about the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, eat your hearts out. Such a beautiful epoch-spanning novel about art and regret.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in a strong debut that offers the hope of redemption. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
I Will Find You by Joanna Connors: By using present-tense narration, Connors makes the events of 1984 feel as if they happened yesterday: a blow-by-blow of the sex acts forced on her at knife-point over the nearly one-hour duration of her rape; the police reports and trials; and the effects it all had on her marriage and family. This is an excellent work of reconstruction and investigative reporting.
Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge: Younge built this book by choosing a 24-hour period (November 22 to 23, 2013) and delving into all 10 gun deaths of young Americans on record for that time: seven black, two Latino, and one white; aged nine to 18; about half at least vaguely gang-related, while in two – perhaps the most crushing cases – there was an accident while playing around with a gun. I dare anyone to read this and then try to defend gun ‘rights’ in the face of such senseless, everyday loss.
Best Discoveries of the Year: Apollo Classics reprints (I reviewed three of them this year); Diana Abu-Jaber, Linda Grant and Kristopher Jansma.
Most Pleasant Year-Long Reading Experience: The seasonal anthologies issued by the UK Wildlife Trusts and edited by Melissa Harrison (I reviewed three of them this year).
Most Improved: I heartily disliked Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood. But her second, The Essex Serpent, is exquisite.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Stephanie Danler, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Francis Spufford, Andria Williams and Sunil Yapa.
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here’s hoping 2017 doesn’t bring any letdowns from beloved authors.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Paulina & Fran (2015) by Rachel B. Glaser. My only one-star review of the year. ’Nuff said?
The 2016 Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to: (At least the 10 I’m most regretful about)
- The Power by Naomi Alderman
- The Museum of You by Carys Bray
- The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
- What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell*
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky
- The Inseparables by Stuart Nadler
- Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst*
- The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney*
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead*
*Haven’t been able to find anywhere yet; the rest are on my Kindle.