Whether or not you're heading back into a classroom in September, Labor Day weekend still marks the turning of a metaphorical page, even if the change to your reading is more about how you tote your books — going from beach bag to backpack, perhaps — than the stories you select.
Some major fiction events are on the horizon this month, including the long-awaited "Handmaid's Tale" sequel from Margaret Atwood, coming on September 10. "The Testaments" is set 15 years after Offred's final scene in Atwood's seminal dystopia — and the basis for the all-too-timely Hulu series — and will be narrated by three female characters. National Book Award-winning author of "Between the World and Me" Ta-Nehisi Coates will make his novel debut September 24 with "The Water Dancer," about an enslaved young man with a powerful gift that helps him lead others to freedom. And Salman Rushdie kicks off the month on September 3, taking Cervantes to modern-day America in a Don Quixote reimagining about a mediocre spy thriller author and his imaginary, TV-obsessed, lovesick creation "Quichotte."
The following are six novels — five new, one new in paperback — that also feel particularly necessary for the time we're in now: stories of strained family loyalties, of struggling to outlive traumatic histories, and of reckoning with what it means to want to survive in a merciless world.
This haunting debut weaves together three compelling voices drowning under the weight of their pasts. The luxurious Southern California life of Jocelyn, wife of wealthy film producer Conrad and mother to spunky six-year-old Lucy, is thrown into turmoil — an all too familiar state for her — after her abusive mother dies and Jocelyn has to reckon with survivor's guilt and the aftershocks of her hellish childhood. In an attempt to push back at her spiraling depression she throws herself into tennis lessons at her ritzy athletic club — where, as one of the only Black members, she already feels like an outsider — and becomes enthralled with tall blonde tennis pro Kate, taking refuge in a crush that builds into something more like obsession.
While struggling to maintain control over her competing desires — essential for keeping the safe life she has built — Jocelyn stumbles upon a kindred spirit in her neighbor Simon, a celebrated architect who survived the Rwandan genocide but lost his family, and who finds in little Lucy a reminder of the daughter who was taken from him. Meanwhile in Boston, Claudette, a professor pregnant by a man who is not her husband, attempts to reconcile a fractured childhood with her own impending parenthood.
Page builds incredible tension in her braided narrative as her three point-of-view characters reckon with the past from within the limited choices their present abilities offer. How do those who have witnessed human-born atrocities trust again, let alone accept responsibility for each other? What do traumatized parents owe to seeking children — the truth, or something better? And how to make the active decision to accept life where it is given, when all you have known is the looming possibility of violent loss? Page demands we witness, with eyes open, what can be carried within a vulnerable body, and what those limits are. Human resilience is a marvel, this novel says, but a fragile one, too easily undone. — Erin Keane
Moore’s 2018 debut novel is brimming with lyricism, myth and symbolism — yet anchors itself in the tangible weight of the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. “She Would Be King” assembles a cast of characters with supernatural powers. There’s Gbessa, a red-haired child born on a day that the elders of her West African village have declared cursed. She is declared as a witch (an assertion that isn’t totally unfounded, as she has the ability to resurrect herself from the dead) and eventually exiled. Across the ocean, we find June Dey, fleeing a Virginia plantation overseer, discovering his own unusual physical strength. Then there’s Norman Aragorn, the child of a white British colonizer and Maroon woman, who can, like his mother, fade from sight.
These characters overcome their own obstacles, carving their own paths, only to find themselves united in the fledgling nation of Liberia, watched by the all-seeing spirit of the wind — but the story doesn’t stop there, as the potential for conflict builds between black American settlers and African natives, while French slave traders invade the country without notice.
Moore’s style is wholly unique, weaving in the myths and legends of her childhood, and lends itself to an immersive, magical portrayal of Liberia beyond its identity as a haven for emancipated African Americans. — Ashlie D. Stevens
Identical twins can be a little unsettling; their very existence up-ends so many unspoken assumptions we carry about what makes a human being unique. When they do that thing where they have their own private language? It can get weird. In Cathleen Schine's lively portrait of two headstrong identical — well, at first, and that's a sticking point — redhead sisters coming of age in 1970s New York, words are a primary binding force between Laurel and Daphne Wolfe. But a love of language, manifested in an antique dictionary their doting accountant father drags home one day, is a dangerous thing, susceptible — as are familial bonds — to manipulation, evolution and transformation into heat-seeking missile.
With a light touch, Schine illustrates the wonderful and terrifying bond sisters have: Only by facing each other can they glimpse the truth about their most secret and unspoken desires and fears. When the Wolfe sisters, one a demi-celebrity language columnist and the other a burgeoning experimental poet, have a falling out over words — what else? — it's really over everything they can't articulate out loud to one another. Readers who swoon over "Dreyer's English" and have their own pet dictionaries will delight over this arch family comedy whose chapter headings also function as a sort of weaponized word-of-the-day calendar. — EK
The opportunity for chaos in Emma Donoghue’s “Akin” reveals itself within the first few pages. Noah, a retired New York City chemistry professor and widower had well-established plans for his 80th birthday: he was going to visit the South of France, to find out more about his birth place and mother, who sent him to live with his father in the U.S.
But Michael wasn’t part of those plans.
Michael is the illegitimate 11-year-old son of Noah’s deadbeat nephew Victor. The two have never met but, as the social worker put it, there is literally “nobody at all to look after him.” Michael’s mother is in jail on drug charges, Victor has supposedly overdosed, and the grandmother who was taking care of him has just died. The only real option, Noah realizes, is to take Michael along on this trip.
Tensions are high from the start. It becomes apparent that as Noah pokes through Nice, a town still inhabited by the ghosts of Nazi occupation, that his mother’s legacy is more complicated than he thought; through some old photographs and modern research (carried out by tweener Michael on his battered cell phone) Noah suspects she may have been a Nazi collaborator.
While reckoning with this information, Noah and Michael continue to come to heads over everything from screen time to swearing. The tension seethes for much of the book, with some occasional sparks, but Donoghue lets off the gas just enough for the characters to connect in a way that doesn’t feel sappy. There are no major heart-to-hearts, though there are some deeply touching passages, like when Noah helps Michael cope with his stress-induced bedwetting: “Don’t worry about it, is all I meant. It can happen when you have a lot on your plate.”
Readers begin to piece together the kind of life Michael has lived — impoverished and lonely. Simultaneously, we find out more about Noah’s background through internal conversations with the spirit of his wife Joan, who died nine years prior.
Through Donoghue’s well-crafted writing, we see the points where, though the two flawed protagonists are generations apart, their stories overlap and converge; she lightly touches on a more universal concept of how our ancestry and history inform the people we are today, and the use (or lack thereof) of confronting the complicated pasts of the people who made us. — ADS
"Welcome, Miss Monroe! Welcome to Korea, which has turned into a mass grave from three years of bloody battle!" Alice J. Kim, a promising artist before the war, tames her acerbic internal monologue while at work with the American armed forces, where her translation skills garner her the assignment of accompanying Marilyn Monroe, on a break from her Japan honeymoon with new husband Joe DiMaggio, on a brief USO tour to visit American GIs stationed in South Korea.
It's 1954, a year after the armistice; in Seoul people are hungry, shattered, war-scarred, looking for signs that stability might be on the horizon. And here's Hollywood's shiniest dream, all pressed powder and platinum hair, flirting and singing and posing for photo opps with Korea's famous actresses whom she does not recognize; all the men of course losing their minds over the living fantasy in their midst. Alice, in contrast to her style in a previous life, wears donated shoes and ragged gloves; her hair, prematurely gray from a horrific incident in the war, she dyes with beer. And yet the two women recognize each other immediately as fellow creatures of want, with Alice's new proximity to glamour prompting flashbacks to her passionate pre-war life, and the hell that followed.
Historical photos of Monroe's real USO tour inspired screenwriter and author Ji-Min Lee's moving portrayal of postwar trauma, with a photo of a young Korean woman who worked as a translator becoming the fictional Alice, who forges an unlikely bond with the movie star while confronting her impossible ghosts in the form of a love triangle that spiraled out of control. Unable to bring herself to draw, and unwilling to allow herself to be loved, Alice holds onto the slight possibility that a child she lost touch with during the war might, against all odds, still be alive. But her survivor's guilt has roots that threaten to trap her so deeply in the past her redemptive quest might not be enough to tether her to the living. As the title hints, international intrigue also plays a role, with Alice's fate uncertain until the end. The abrupt denouement would likely play out better on screen, but surely the author is already working on making Alice a Hollywood icon in her own right. — EK
Reading “The Dutch House,” I’m reminded of the now-clichéd Tolstoy quote about how every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This latest novel by PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author Ann Patchett lays bare the particular pain of Maeve and Danny Conroy, a brother and sister who are deeply devoted to each other.
We open on 10-year-old Maeve and three-year-old Danny growing up in the Dutch House, a massive, gaudy estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia. It was owned by their father, real-estate mogul Cyril Conroy who viewed the property as a physical marker of his successful ascent from poverty; their mother, Elna, hates the place. A devout Catholic, she initially uses spirituality as an excuse to take some limited time away from the home, doing charitable work in India. Eventually Elna simply disappears.
Over the five years, Maeve and Danny cling tighter to each other, as the pair are cared for now by the staff of Dutch House, with minimal interference from their icy father. When Cyril eventually remarries, it’s to Andrea, who loves the house and its excess, but couldn’t care less about his children. When Cyril eventually passes away, Andrea slowly expels the Conroy siblings.
While as the years progress, Maeve and Danny process their bitterness in very different ways, they remain loyal to each other, the image of their childhood home and the shared memories it housed — that is, until a shocking revelation claws a hole in their perception of the past.
Patchett’s latest is a thoughtful exploration of memory, family ties and how those can survive (or fail under) the weight of domestic upheaval. — ADS