New Fiction: Made for Love – Alissa Nutting

Nutting likes to push boundaries—and buttons. Her first novel, Tampa, was a dark satire about an eighth-grade teacher’s affair with a student. It was a high-wire performance that repelled some readers and made others fans for life.

This new novel, while less polarizing, is no less a daring satire. It’s the story of an aimless young woman trying to escape her marriage to the founder and sinister CEO of a far-reaching tech company. (It’s hard not to think Google when the company is named “Gogol.”)

Having literally escaped her husband’s high security compound, she arrives at the door of her elderly father’s Florida trailer where he has taken up residence with a life-size blow-up doll in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Then things get weirder.

There’s a secondary plot about a handsome con man who gets his sexual wires crossed after being molested by a dolphin. (Yes, I said that.) Eventually his story intertwines with Hazel’s and results in an absurdist romp about technology, the mind and free will.  It’s bracing, laugh out loud social satire in the vein of Nell Zink.

Nutting deftly exploits the comic potential of perverse attachments, here to sex dolls, aquatic mammals, and technological devices…. The story begins after a woman, Hazel, has fled her controlling husband, Byron, a cold-blooded, germaphobic, and distinctly un-Byronic tech titan who treated his electronics like lesser wives.’ Hazel takes refuge in her father’s trailer park home, vastly different from her former lodging, ‘the Hub,’ Byron’s sterile compound that is at once a prison, spa, and hospital. Living with her father and his recently purchased sex doll, Hazel hopes to avoid Byron’s near-omniscient gaze and forge a new, unsurveilled, and thrillingly unhygienic life…. [A] witty portrait of a woman desperate to reconnect with her humanity.
Publishers Weekly, “Best Summer Books of 2017”

“[O]ne of the funniest, most absurd books you’ll read this summer…. Hilarious, clever, and strikingly original, Made for Love speaks to the absurdity of our societal obsessions with technology and wealth.”
   — Buzzfeed

“There is no one who negotiates the absurd as vigorously yet poignantly as Alissa Nutting. In her second novel, Made For Love, Nutting explores the loneliness of a future overly mediated by technology through a tremendous romp involving Hazel, trying to leave her tech mogul husband Byron even though his reach knows no bounds. There are sex dolls and a senior citizen trailer park and brain chips and a con man who loves dolphins and still, the story makes sense like a motherfucker. Brilliant, dense, hilarious writing that hurtles toward an ending that is both satisfying and unexpected.”
— Roxane Gay

“Oh god I just love every page. It’s fantastic.”
— Lynda Barry

“After devouring Nutting’s deliciously dysfunctional debut, Tampa, I consider myself a devotee to her particular brand of cringe-worthy absurdity. Nutting masterfully navigated the sticky complexities of human sexuality once before so I trusted her, implicitly, to take me there again. She, as expected, did not disappoint…. Equal parts sinister and hilarious, eccentric and affecting, Nutting manages to craft an arresting and outrageous puzzle that is far more than the sum of its parts.”
— Tara Bagnola, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

Made for Love (9780062280558) by Alissa Nutting. $26.99 hardcover. 7/4/17 on sale.

Book of the Week: River Under the Road – Scott Spencer

Spencer will likely always be remembered for this 1979 classic, Endless Love. And that’s a shame because good as that book was, Spencer followed that early success with one terrific book after another. Two of his more recent novels remain among my favorites—A Ship Made of Paper and Man in the Woods. To that I happily add this new book.

While the plots of his books are wide-ranging, there is a through-line to his themes. It seems to me that all his books are concerned with how one’s reaction in a moment of strong emotion can tear apart what proves to be the relatively thin scrim of civilization.

Told from alternating points of view over many years, River Under the Road is the story of a marriage—two marriages really–against the backdrop of declining opportunities for the working class and the lottery-like luck that leads a small number of Americans to live lives of luxury while telling themselves they have earned that outsized luck.

The story plays out poignantly on the small canvas of a handful of people’s lives from their early choices to their dawning awareness of their compromises, betrayals and failures. And in a subtle but ultimately devastating way, we see how they stand in for America’s choices over the last fifty years.

What Janet Maslin said of A Ship Made of Paper in the NYT is true for this book, too:

Richly intelligent prose and vivid characters, set against the backdrop of American race relations [in this case substitute “class”]. Here are real people confronting real emotions, whether it’s the electric thrill of illicit love, seething anger over a betrayal or the white-knuckle terror of genuine mortal danger… [the] slowly escalating catastrophe that wrecks buildings and lives – will rattle your bones.”

The best book titles offer and “ah ha” moment and a clue about the writer’s intent. The title for this book comes when two screenwriters are talking at a Hollywood party: “’You want to know what I know, chum?… Eagles can tell how much food is going to be available in their habitat over the next six months and if they see it’s going to be slim pickings they break a couple of their own eggs so there won’t be too many mouths to feed. We’re connected to our environment, too. We’re aware of what’s going on with our species, with our whole world, we can feel it like you can feel a river under a road.’”

Coverage starts with New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post where it was already included as one of most anticipated book of the spring.

“Rich, provocative . . . . Since Endless Love (1979) . . . Spencer’s specialty has been the ache of unrequited (or lost) love. His prose on the subject of romance is fulsome, lush, downright Lawrencian. He has a supple understanding of infidelity and marital dynamics, especially the simmering resentments of a floundering relationship. . . . River Under the Road is wry and insightful.”
— Washington Post

“The story of two couples, recounted across 14 years through the lens of a dozen parties…. At the center of the action are Thaddeus, a screenwriter, and his wife, Grace, an artist who drifts away from her art as the pair moves from bohemia into the bourgeoisie…. Money is an issue throughout the novel—who has it and who doesn’t, what one must do to get it, what happens when it goes away. More to the point, however, this is a book about the vicissitudes of love…”
Kirkus Reviews

River Under the Road (9780062660053) by Scott Spencer. $27.99 hardcover. 6/27/17 on sale.

 

Fiction Short Take: The Destroyers – Christopher Bollen

Bollen follows up Orient, his stylish, well-received novel about murder in a small Long Island town, with a more Hitchcockian exercise in suspense and murder. The NYT writes that The Destroyers is about “beautiful people visiting glamorous places, being wicked enough to bring Patricia Highsmith to mind. It just isn’t summer without this kind of globe-trotting glamour to read about, especially when most of it is set in the Aegean…. Escapism, as calculating as it gets.”

The plot centers around two childhood friends from wealthy families now dealing with complications about their inheritances. Down-on-his-luck Ian is hired to manage his friend Charlie’s yacht. When Charlie goes missing Ian starts looking for him. Suddenly Ian’s eclectic group of acquaintances starts seeming pretty dicey–and the game is afoot.

This one is on tons of summer reading lists including The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, TIME, Vogue, New York Post and the BBC. Reviews are coming in USA Today, New York Magazine, LA Times and People.

“Bollen manages to create a novel that is equal parts literary and thrilling. His beautiful sentences linger, and each of his characters have rich, complicated pasts that unfold over time… a cinematic and insightful reflection on wealth and the horrendous things it can drive people to do, even to the ones they love.”
Publishers Weekly

 “An eminently worthy heir to Patricia Highsmith. At once gritty, sandy, and silky-good reading for the beach or a yacht, too.”
— Kirkus Reviews

“Atmospheric… a slow-building, literary motorbike ride down steep Greek hillsides…. The writing is sharp, languid, and lovely, and the first-person point of view is a narrowly focused beam that eventually grows to encompass the entirety of the island.”
   — Library Journal

The Destroyers (9780062329981) by Christopher Bollen. $27.99 hardcover. 6/27/17 on sale.

 

More on: The Essex Serpent- Sarah Perry

Holy Moley, it’s hard to imagine a better week opening week of review attention. With stellar Washington Post, WSJ and NYT national reviews and a fascinating NPR interview, this is shaping up to be summer’s literary sleeper hit (though hard to call any book that’s already sold 250,000 copies in England a “sleeper.”)

Don’t skip the video link below to Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles’ “Totally Hip Book Review.” He does these in addition to his reviews in the paper and they are always hilarious. 🙂

“The most delightful heroine since Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice… Perry creates that delicate illusion of the best historical fiction: an authentic sense of the past — its manners, ideals and speech — that feels simultaneously distant and relevant to us…By the end, The Essex Serpent identifies a mystery far greater than some creature ‘from the illuminated margins of a manuscript’: friendship.”
Washington Post (full review)

[A] novel of almost insolent ambition — lush and fantastical, a wild Eden behind a garden gate. Set in the Victorian era, it’s part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable. It’s wonderfully dense and serenely self-assured. I found it so transporting that 48 hours after completing it, I was still resentful to be back home… Perry’s writing engages the senses. You can almost smell the brine, the oyster, the ‘secretive scent of fungus clinging to the oak.’ But the real abundance here is of feelings between characters, not all of them sentimental. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book in which a man and a woman quarrel quite so much, and quite so forcefully, without something devastating coming of it.”
New York Times (full review)

“Richly enjoyable… Ms. Perry writes beautifully and sometimes agreeably sharply… The Essex Serpent is a wonderfully satisfying novel. Ford Madox Ford thought the glory of the novel was its ability to make the reader think and feel at the same time. This one does just that.”
Wall Street Journal (full review)

The Essex Serpent (9780062666376) by Sarah Perry. $26.99 hardcover. 6/6/17 on sale.

 

Book of the Week: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

This is a very clever literary novel that should appeal to fans Sarah Waters, Jessie Burton and Helene Wecker. Using the conventions of the 19th century Gothic novel, Perry tells the story of a young widow and a rural British village obsessed with the possibility of a prehistoric serpent the townspeople believe may be responsible for the mysterious deaths of several animals and people.

Against that background Parry is able to play out a story of science, faith and superstition populated with characters who feel both pegged to the time and refreshingly modern: a rakish dwarf who is a brilliant young surgeon and smitten with our heroine, the widow’s inscrutably peculiar son who we 21st century readers understand to be autistic, a country minister with a fierce intelligence that matches our heroine’s—and our heroine herself: an iconoclast, a survivor of abuse, and an autodidact fascinated with Darwin’s new theories. She thinks the “monster” might be an evolutionary throwback. That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cast of characters in this lively, inventive novel.

To me one of the book’s central pleasures is that it feels both subversively modern yet has all the charm and civility so central to the shape and tone of 19th century novels. And because Parry is playing with the 19th century Gothic, there are star-crossed lovers, romantic consumptives, high and low society, lives in peril. The book does Dickens and the Brontes proud. Combined with the mystery of the serpent, how it all gets resolved makes for very satisfying reading.

The Essex Serpent has been met with raves in England; the Waterstone Bookstore chain’s named it one of their books of the year calling it “the most deeply satisfying fiction you will read this year.”

On this side of the pond, it’s a June Indie Next pick. And as an indication of the broad popular/literary readership we expect, Variety selected Sarah Perry as one of “10 Brits to Watch in 2017.” Review attention starts with People, the NYTBR, WSJ, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue and Vanity Fair.

The unlikely friendship between a canny widow and a scholarly vicar sets the stage for this sweeping 19th-century saga of competing belief systems….An unlikely pair, the two develop a fast intellectual friendship, curious to many but accepted by all, including Ransome’s ailing wife….Perry pulls out all the stops in her richly detailed Victorian yarn, weaving myth and local flavor with 19th-century debates about theology and evolution, medical science and social justice for the poor….The sumptuous twists and turns of Perry’s prose invite close reading, as deep and strange and full of narrative magic as the Blackwater itself….[P]repare to fall under Perry’s spell and into her very capable hands. Stuffed with smarts and storytelling sorcery, this is a work of astonishing breadth and brilliance.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“In Perry’s excellent second novel… a fatal illness, a knife-wielding maniac, and a fated union with the Essex Serpent will dictate the ultimate happiness of [the] characters. Like John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, whose Lyme Regis setting gets a shout-out here, this is another period literary pastiche with a contemporary overlay.”
Publishers Weekly

“The vivid, often frightening imagery… and the lush descriptions… create a magical background for the sensual love story between Sarah and Will. Book discussion groups will have a field day with the imagery, the well-developed characters, and the concepts of innocence, evil, and guilt.”
Booklist (starred review)

In this novel, reminiscent of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights in its bitter cold and windy weather, people surprise each other, much is not as it would seem, and the human heart wants what it wants, even when we know what happened in the garden of Eden. Lovely characters I will not soon forget.”
— Anne Holman, The King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, UT

“[A] pitch-perfect modern take on the Victorian novel, channeling both Sarah Waters and Jane Austen. A weathered widow rediscovers a love for natural science as she both attempts to track down a mythical beastie in Essex, England and fend off a budding attachment to a local minister. Science and religion clash in a thrilling manner in this beautifully written novel, brimming with fully-formed, fascinating characters (I especially love her gruff, protective companion who is so in love). Romance! Passion! Religion! Politics! Giant river monsters! Fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things are going to love this charming, yet scathing novel. I certainly did!”
— Bill, Carl, Wellesley Books, Wellesley, MA

The Essex Serpent (9780062666376) by Sarah Perry. $26.99 hardcover. 6/6/17 on sale.

New Fiction: everybody’s Son – Thrity Umrigar

This is bestselling author and book-club favorite Umrigar’s best book in years. Moving from her usual focus on immigrant and Indian-American experience, this new novel looks at America’s fraught class and race relationships by exploring the story of a young black boy adopted by affluent, influential white parents.

Nine-year old Anton becomes a front-page story when he is found locked in an apartment and seemingly abandoned by his crack addicted mother. David Coleman is a judge and the son of a U.S. Senator looking to fill a void after the death of his son five years ago. He and his wife take in Anton, and though the boy misses his mother, he flourishes.

Anton is eventually adopted by the Colemans and seems to be living the American Dream—complete with a Harvard education and an eventual career as a State’s Attorney General. But the worm at the heart of the story is that years before David used his influence to ensure that Anton’s mother got a long prison sentence and pressured her to relinquish her parental rights. When Anton discovers this is world is again upended. It’s a wrenching read about the nuanced, morally compromised decisions we make in the name of love and “higher good.”

A Boston Globe review has already been assigned and Umrigar will be interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

When nine-year-old Anton first enters foster care, he still believes his mother is coming back for him. However, his new foster father, David Coleman, hopes she stays away for a long time…. David rationalizes that if he must do something dishonest to keep the boy, it is only because he wants to protect him and give him a better life…. But when the secrets of his past are finally revealed, Anton’s identity is shaken to the core. Jarring and beautiful, Umrigar’s novel examines complex social issues with brutal honesty, but also creates accessible characters with relatable motives, reminding us of the deep-seated racism that exists even in the places we don’t think to look.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Umrigar’s] focus has always been on the Indian and Indian American experience, but here she crosses borders to examine tough and timely issues concerning a black family, a white family, and our children today.”
— Library Journal

“[An] uncompromising in its portrayal of what power reveals about those who wield it.”
   — Booklist

Everybody’s Son (9780062442246) by Thrity Umrigar. $26.99 hardcover. 6/6/17 on sale.

Book of the Week: Bad Dreams and Other Stories – Tessa Hadley

Elizabeth Strout. Alice Munro. Marilyn Robinson. This elite club of writers creates a small miracle with their exquisite, economical prose. I never ceased to be amazed by their ability to look behind the quotidian dailiness of peoples’ lives (mostly women’s) and unfurl for us a vast star map of the human heart.

Anyone who has read Tessa Hadley will add her to the top of this list. Hadley finally broke out in the U.S. with her bestselling novel, The Past, which the Washington Post compared to Anne Tyler and Alice Munro, noting that “the book offers similar deep pleasures. Like those North American masters of the domestic realm, Hadley crystallizes the atmosphere of ordinary life in prose somehow miraculous and natural…. Extraordinary.”

Lily King commented:

Few writers have been as important to me as Tessa Hadley. She puts on paper a consciousness so visceral, so fully realized, it heightens and expands your own. She is a true master, and The Past is a big, brilliant novel: sensual, wise, compelling—and utterly magnificent.”

As good as the novel is, I think Hadley is at her very best with the short stories. (The New Yorker has published 22.) She always seems able to lever the constraints of the shorter form in an exhilarating way. In her 2014 novel, Clever Girl, interlinked stories accrued in discreet story-like chapters to create the story of one woman’s life in the later 20th century. It’s easily the peer of the remarkable Olive Kitteridge and, like that book, remains one of the my most rewarding reading experiences.

So, this new collection from Hadley is a very happy event—and already has two starred advance reviews. I expect it to be reviewed widely.

Young women and girls take the measure of themselves in Hadley’s remarkably precise and perceptive collection of short stories, set in the middle-class Britain of the 1950s and ’60s and in the present day. Chance encounters disrupt the punctiliously observed rituals of daily life, often leading to a lifetime of consequence for Hadley’s characters…. In subtly insightful and observant prose, Hadley writes brilliantly of the words and gestures that pass unnoticed “in the intensity of [the] present” but echo without cease.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Quietly explosive short stories that reveal, with unsparing precision, the epic drama simmering beneath the mundanity of everyday life…. Achingly lovely, though never sentimental, Hadley’s collection renders common lives with exquisite grace.”
Kirkus (starred review)

Bad Dreams and Other Stories (9780062476661) by Tessa Hadley. $26.99 hardcover. 5/16/17 on sale.