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The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante
At the beginning of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco are two little girls playing with dolls on the streets of their rough Naples neighborhood. By the final installment, against all odds, Elena is a respected novelist and Lila a tech entrepreneur. Their lives play out against a backdrop of political tumult, mob violence, the women’s movement and countless other upheavals of the late 20th century. But Ferrante’s novels, culminating in this year’s wrenching Story of the Lost Child, stick brilliantly to their focus: the bond between two complex women whose ambition and charisma at times unite them, and at times bitterly divide them.
A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson
This is a companion volume to Atkinson’s magnificent 2013 novel Life After Life, a soaring, looping novel about an Englishwoman named Ursula whose life started over every time she died. A God In Ruins (it’s from Emerson: “a man is a god in ruins”) concerns Ursula’s brother Teddy, an RAF pilot who is, statistically at least, immune to death: he survives dozens of bombing runs while those around him perish. Teddy’s traumatic wartime is the engine of this book — the narrative orbits around those years, telling his full life story on either side, touching at times on other members of his family too, but always returning to those thrilling, pounding bombing missions. Compared to the war Teddy’s life is otherwise almost comically uneventful, but Atkinson finds in it fathomless depths of human experience and pathos.
Fates & Furies, Lauren Groff
On the face of it, Lauren Groff’s novel doesn’t seem revolutionary: it’s the story of a marriage told in two halves, one for each spouse. But Fates and Furies is less “he said, she said” than “he said, she said, and whoa, he had no f—ing idea.” The cataclysmic unknown unknowns that separate Lotto and Mathilde, a golden couple who marry young and flourish through Lotto’s success as a playwright, simultaneously explode and reinforce the notion of soul mates—to hide so much for so long, to such striking effect, takes a peculiar kind of dedication. If the plot occasionally strains credibility (couples’ counseling might have done wonders), that doesn’t detract from Groff’s searing exploration of how far a person will go for love, loyalty and revenge.
Get in Trouble, Kelly Link
Link writes slowly—only stories, and those not very often—but every one is perfect. They tend to be about teenage girls on the tipping point: from childhood into adulthood, but also from a very real, mundane world into somewhere far stranger and more magical. In one story a girl takes care of a summer cottage whose mysterious residents make weird, marvelous contraptions. Another girl meets her online lover at a hotel that’s hosting two conferences, one for dentists and one for superheroes (which is he?) Link fuses the miraculous and the ordinary so gorgeously and delicately, you’ll never find the seam between them.
Welcome to Braggsville , T. Geronimo Johnson
Where do you think more weirdness is likely to transpire—Berkeley, California, or Braggsville, Georgia? Braggsville, of course, perhaps especially if you’re coming from Berkeley. D’Aron Johnson has fled his fictional hometown to attend college in California, but he takes three of his new friends home to bear witness to the entirely nonfictional paradox that is the “New” South he grew up in: a white, whitewashed Dixie where it’s okay to celebrate the Civil War cuz it’s histr’y. Naturally these four kids can’t brook it. As serious-hearted as they are, Johnson’s writing is often brilliantly comic, and Braggsville is a welcome new kind of southern novel.
The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud
Albert Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger, in which a French Algerian man remorselessly shoots an Arab and is sentenced to death, is a staple of existential literature: a portrait of an indifferent man in an indifferent universe. Kamel Daoud’s novel picks up half a century later with the story of the still grieving brother of that unnamed, gunned-down Arab man, for whom indifference is a luxury he can’t afford. Recent decades are ripe with responses to classic texts, as authors flood the canon with underrepresented voices and counter through words the historic injustices of colonialism. That may sound academic, but Daoud’s novel is not: it succeeds through its emotion, its lyricism and, tragically, its timeliness.
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” Thus begins Seveneves (the title is an elegant palindrome), a hybrid novel-cum-thought experiment conducted on a massive scale in both space and time—Part III carries the memorable dateline “Five Thousand Years Later.” After exploding, the ruined moon goes on to pound the Earth with fragments of itself, rendering the surface uninhabitable and forcing a tiny handful of humanity to scramble into orbit, where they cling to life and gradually refashion themselves in strange, fascinating ways. Along with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, Seveneves demonstrates that science fiction is thinking harder, more ambitiously and more rigorously than ever about the precarious future of our species.
Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick Dewitt
Undermajordomo Minor—the title dares you to say it out loud—is set in a Kafkaesque, Alpine but otherwise geographically vague part of central Europe; in its quirky, melancholy charm it’s not leagues away from The Grand Budapest Hotel. (In fact Dewitt may have written the greatest Wes Anderson movie never made.) Our hero is the callow and unprepossessing but still strangely appealing Lucien Minor, known as Lucy, who quits his small town, where he is resolutely unpopular, to take the position of undermajordomo at the vast, rambling, crumbling Castle von Aux. There, amid a pageant of human pettiness and oddity, he gradually discovers within himself a resourcefulness and a curious charm that transform him into an oddly irresistible hero.
The Mark and the Void, Paul Murray
The global financial crisis has not inspired much comedy, but Paul Murray (who made this list in 2010 for his Irish-boarding-school charmer Skippy Dies) finds nihilistic humor in a band of bankers capitalizing on the post-crash chaos. His way in? A burned-out novelist, coincidentally named Paul, who wants to immortalize a banker — that contemporary blank-souled everyman — in his next book. Murray’s deadpan dialogue thrives in finance’s theater of the absurd, but his humanist touch lifts The Mark and the Void into something unexpectedly moving, a paean to personal relations amid spreadsheets and speculation.
The Dust That Falls From Dreams, Louis de Bernieres
One hundred and one summers after the guns of August sounded, Louis de Bernieres gave us this poignant novel following the fates of three families through World War I. In so doing, he added a worthy entry to this year’s stories about bomber pilots with charmed lives (see: A God in Ruins), as well as providing the view from the trenches, the hospitals and the English countryside. But even better than de Bernieres’ prismatic coverage of war is his depiction of ensuing peace. “What are we supposed to do with so much life unexpectedly left over?” one character asks. The answer is to live, drawing from grief and resignation the hard-won freedom to start anew.