Reading is an intimate encounter that does not require social distance. In our current world of restricted movement, the book is a geography where complete freedom remains possible.
Siri Hustvedt, “Fairy Tales and Facts: How We Read in a Pandemic”
Author Siri Hustvedt asks us to consider what reading does for us in difficult times: “What could fiction with its imaginary ramblings possibly give anyone at such a time, except an escape into the unreal?” Reading forgettable page-turners for comfort and diversion is enjoyable and therapeutic, she acknowledges (“This kind of reading is like eating chocolate in bed. I am all for it”) but reading more complex literature — books we’ll remember years from now — can enrich our spirits.
I have to admit that my own recent reading has leaned more to the chocolate in bed variety. Here are a baker’s dozen of my recent favorites — some of which I think will stick with me and remind me of the months I spent at home.
All Adults Here (Emma Straub) — If you like a dysfunctional family story with a lighter touch, this one is for you. I loved that the main character is 68 years old and just discovering who she is. All Adults Here is an of-the-moment story about just about every issue that 21st century families might face, with plenty of warmth and humor.
Afterlife (Julia Alvarez) — Antonia, a retired professor in Vermont, grieving after the sudden death of her husband, reluctantly offers shelter to an undocumented immigrant. Meanwhile, her mentally unbalanced sister has vanished and she and her other sisters are searching for her. I adored this story of healing, hope, and family love.
The Book of Lost Friends (Lisa Wingate) — The author of Before We Were Yours is back with another terrific historical novel about families ripped apart. This novel tells the stories of several enslaved families trying to reconnect after the Civil War. Actual newspaper ads for missing family members were Wingate’s inspiration, and are interspersed throughout the novel. It’s a topic I hadn’t read about before, and I found it fascinating and moving.
The Fountains of Silence (Ruta Septys) — I absolutely loved this book, and applaud Ruta Septys for writing yet another historical novel that appeals to both teenagers and adults. She said in an interview, “I’m an author of young adult fiction that happens to appeal to adults.” I don’t know what it says about me that I thought The Fountains of Silence is the best book I’ve read about the Spanish Civil Wand its legacy. It’s long (512 pages), but I raced through it over one rainy weekend.
The Guest List (Lucy Foley) — The reviews all liken The Guest List, set at a destination wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland, to an Agatha Christie novel. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never actually read Agatha Christie. I’ve also never enjoyed mysteries much — I didn’t even like Nancy Drew when I was a child. I’m generally more interested in characters and relationships than plot. But I might become a convert, because I loved The Guest List.
The Illness Lesson (Clare Beams) — I thought this was a pretty great book about feminism, the education of women, and sexual abuse, but it’s the kind of book that will probably be overlooked because it doesn’t fit into a tidy category. Is it historical fiction? Magical realism? Horror? The Washington Post described it as Louisa May Alcott meets Shirley Jackson. Set at an experimental school for girls in late 19th century Massachusetts where a mysterious illness is plaguing the students, the novel reminded me of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
A Long Petal of the Sea (Isabel Allende) — Allende’s latest, which has not a trace of magical realism, is a gorgeous love story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and revolutionary Chile. Roser, a young pianist escapes fascist Spain and marries her fiancé’s brother out of desperation. Together, they travel to Chile on a ship chartered by poet Pablo Neruda and build a life there — one in which they face terrible hardships.
Lost Roses (Martha Hall Kelly) — Eliza Ferriday (based on a real person and the mother of Caroline Ferriday, protagonist of Kelly’s earlier Lilac Girls) travels to St. Petersburg to visit her friend Sofya, a member of the Romanov family. But when World War I breaks out, Eliza returns to the United States, while Sofya struggles to survive in Russia. Fun, fast-paced historical fiction.
Redhead By the Side of the Road (Anne Tyler) — Every Anne Tyler book is pretty much the same — Baltimore setting, quirky characters, attention to detail, and her own brand of sympathetic humor. Her latest novel (and, I’m pretty sure, her shortest) is no different. It’s a little piece of perfection, and I found it comforting and hopeful.
The Red Lotus (Chris Bohjalian) — I was disappointed in Bohjalian’s last book, The Flight Attendant, but The Red Lotus was a happy surprise — a well-written page turner (about a pandemic, no less) that I sped through in a couple of days. It’s more than a thriller, though, emphasizing characters and their relationships along with a diabolically clever plot. Don’t let the theme scare you off — the pandemic in this book is bacterial, not viral, and, without giving anything away, originated quite differently from Covid-19.
Valentine (Elizabeth Wetmore) — This debut novel is astonishing in many ways, but particularly in the way it brought West Texas, a place I’ve never visited, to life. The story Wetmore tells will grab you immediately: after an oil rig worker brutally attacks Gloria, a young Mexican girl, the fault lines in the community become apparent. The characters who lend their voices to the narrative are all memorable, from Mary Rose, the rancher’s wife who bravely testifies at the trial, to Corrine, the widowed teacher who befriends her, to D.A. the neglected little girl who sees more than the adults realize.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Robert Kolker) — This is narrative nonfiction at its best — a “truth is stranger than fiction” story packed with information. Mimi and Don Galvin of Colorado had twelve children between 1945 and 1965 — ten boys and two girls. Six of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health, providing invaluable information about the role of heredity in mental illness. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Hidden Valley Road is a heartbreaking family story and an account of scientific discovery. I couldn’t put it down.
My Wife Said You Might Want to Marry Me (Jason Rosenthal) — Unabashedly sentimental, Rosenthal’s memoir of his wife (writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who published a “Modern Love” essay shortly before her death about Jason, entitled “You May Want to Marry My Husband”) is a beautiful meditation on love, loss, and grief.
I’d love to know what you’ve been reading!
P.S. Check out Read in 2020, which includes almost everything I’ve read this year, the good, the bad, and the in-between.