The Body in Question by Jill Cement
This book is short and emotionally intense (as many of my favorites are–either that or epically sprawling). Two people, identified only by their numbers (at first), are on a sequestered jury for a murder trial (committed, incidentally, by one of a pair of twins, although which one actually did it is a primary question). He is an anatomy professor; she is a married photographer. It’s a jury of only six, with the others identified just by vaguely descriptive nicknames (cornrows; the church lady; the alternate).
The, after the verdict, there’s a whole second section of fallout in their real lives with names, and t’s dark and tense and deeply ironic, with exploration of life, death, and inhabiting a body. In fact the drama is so perfect that it verges on unbelievable, but by that point I’m not sure true realism is what I want; it’s satisfying like this.
Bonus points for accurate legal trappings.
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
A lot of people have compared this to a Jonathan Franzen novel, which I think is usually intended as a compliment. I totally see it–they share the sense that they fully understand the complete psychology of all of their characters, which to me is both arrogant and a sign that the characters are insufficiently complex. Do they really think that people can be figured out like that? They also both write about characters’ less sterling moments, even from within their own points of view, with an unappealing air of contempt. Maybe a character is illustrating something, but she isn’t really living it.
Some of these characters border on cartoonish, and the plot is too engineered, too tidy. What we have is Marilyn and David, a couple universally seen as golden (although of course we ultimately learn about each one’s isolated demon), and their four adult daughters, each with one major life issue–Wendy, the oldest whose rich husband, whom she actually really loved, died young; Violet, her Irish twin, obsessed with curating the apparently perfect life for her adorable family; Liza, ambitious and successful with a depressed boyfriend who plays video games in sweatpants; and Grace, who has moved away and pretends to the whole family that she got into, and is attending, law school. No character is significantly more complex than that.
And then, a new person appears in their orbit (I’ll leave you with at least some mystery), and methodically, one by one, disrupts each person’s equilibrium in exactly the way they happen to need awakening. It covers 40 years and jumps around among everyone’s point of view, sometimes quite quickly. I think it’s almost impossible to build deep psychological or emotional resonance like that.
Inland by Tea Obreht
This was certainly unexpected as a follow-up to The Tiger’s Wife. Set largely in the Arizona Territory in the 19th century, it has two alternating storylines that we imagine throughout surely somehow must intersect, although it takes a long time to learn how. One is Nora, a frontierswoman in the midst of a crisis that unfolds over approximately 24 hours, and the other is Lurie, whom we follow as an outlaw from about age 6, who joins a group of cameleers (yes, camels, in the western US, and this is all based on meticulous historical research), and addresses all of his sections to his camel, Burke.
The two stories share some things, most prominently the existence of (or perhaps just characters’ belief in) the dead remaining among us, in one way or another. It was a slow read, and it took some work. It was incredibly dense and intricate, especially the Nora sections where we slowly learn a lot of very important things about her situation that are not apparent from the outset, especially because the narration stays tightly tethered to her thoughts.
What struck me most was how fully committed Obreht was to the setting–the language, the details, the, for lack of a better word, rules of that world are so fully developed, it’s hard to imagine how she created something so immersive from a vantage point like today.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
I really couldn’t put this down, which is saying a lot in a book that’s essentially a domestic drama. I was fascinated by the structure–it covers nearly a whole lifetime but without feeling rushed or diffuse. There is a definite telling, a consistent narrator who filters as he recalls, and a lightly drawn occasion for telling. The narrator dips in and out of timeframes as needed to tell his story, and it is never jarring or confusing.
The house ties it all together, something that resonates on multiple levels throughout the book. (What is home?) We have Danny Conroy and his sister, Maeve; their mother, Elna, who leaves when Danny is young; and Andrea, the cruel woman their father subsequently marries. Plus the unforgettable Fluffy (the nanny), and Sandy and Jocelyn, the cook and housekeeper.
The story is essentially of growing up, of the reasons for choosing a path in life, dwelling on past hurts and moving on, the inexplicable choices some people make, the ways we are doomed to repeat, or flee, the mistakes of our parents. And the way a house can contain all that.
With special thanks to Jonathan for getting me a delightfully inscribed and signed copy of this beauty.
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Two cops starting out in New York in the 70’s who then move to the same suburb–and what we get is the story of what happens over the next 30-40 years.
The wife in one family is mentally ill, and something bad happens, involving that and the other family, but despite all that, their children are inexorably drawn to each other. That’s the gist–but there’s way too much going on for my taste. There’s immigration (the wife from one family and the husband from the other are from Ireland), mental illness, serious alcoholism, family struggles and abandonment, and way too many points of view, such that I just didn’t know where to focus. I would feel like it was going to be one person’s story, and then we’d never hear from her again.
Everything after the initial period when the cops’ kids are children is oddly rushed. It feels more like a summary than like dipping in deeply in moments that matter, perhaps partly because it’s all third person with no occasion for the telling. If the relationship between the two families’ kids is the thing, then why include so many other points of view?
The book gestures toward an interest in justice–police, crime lab, prosecution, early on a delving into the personal experiences of cops seeing difficult things–but it never digs in, so all that just feels like trappings. There’s nothing to unify it.
Don’t get me wrong–it was readable and entertaining. But it was good material with no focus, no structure or discipline, no new insights, and nothing gorgeous.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Books that describe truly horrible and traumatic things, especially that happen to children, can be so challenging–to write and to read. (I think of A Little Life). And books that address major societal issues, like our history of racism, likewise. I think in both cases a book succeeds by being sufficiently personal, which this one is.
It centers around Elwood, who, after living a life that Whitehead describes as “industrious” as a child, is wrongly accused of a crime and sent to the Nickel Academy, a reform school where he meets Turner, forming the central relationship of the book. We get present-day snippets revealing the damage done interspersed occasionally with the detailed scenes from the past at the school. There’s also a little bit of a twist, although not too much of one. I was drawn in and stayed that way. It even had occasional notes of humor, which to me really make it stand out in its humanity. (I think of the Mexican boy who got transferred from the white group to the black group when he got too tan.)
Finally I should note that this was based on the real-life Dozier school, where a secret graveyard was discovered recently, in Florida. I don’t know enough details about Dozier to know how closely Whitehead hewed, but I do know from the acknowledgments that he drew on primary source material. The book never felt like it was showing off all the details the author had learned. (I’m looking at you, Ian.) It just felt true.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
This is a perfect example of the kind of book I’ve started lovingly calling “quiet books.” There is absolutely nothing flashy going on; the writing is gorgeously simple, unadorned but breathtakingly accurate. No gimmicks, not even much of a plot–but just heartbreaking. Julian Barnes writes sort of like this, at times.
This book is just a couple of years of the relationship between two people, from the end of high school through college, in Ireland, as they love each other, influence each other, hurt each other, sleep together, sleep with other people, and generally navigate their identifies in the move from a small town in Sligo to Dublin. Moment after moment, I found myself marveling at how precisely Rooney had described some feeling I knew but had never put words to. It’s hard to believe she’s only 28. All in the third person, managing a cast of supporting characters who appear when necessary but never feel overly convenient, shifting effortlessly between them — Connell and Marianne.