What to Read: Book Reviews From Real Simple Readers
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May We Be Forgiven, by A. M. Homes
Reviewer: Angela Livengood; age 30; single; Plano, Texas.
Angela’s assessment: This new novel from A. M. Homes centers on Harold Silver, a scholar and a loner, who must turn his life upside down to care for his niece and nephew after his wayward brother makes a terrible mistake. Yet through this calamity, Harold awakens to the beauty of the people around him. In telling the story of the Silver family—their shocking failures and their subsequent transformations—Homes illuminates universal truths of human nature. The novel is about the desire for community, the tendency to hurt those we need the most, and the desperate search for meaning and fulfillment. Anyone who has experienced the extreme highs and lows of family life will empathize with Harold’s journey in this book.
Reviewer: Molly Antos Morey; age 27; married; Chicago.
Molly’s assessment: Part memoir, part self-help manual, this sequel to Rubin’s 2009 best seller, The Happiness Project, explores how we can change our parental and spousal responsibilities—as well as our possessions and physical spaces—to build a more joyful life. Reading it certainly heightened my awareness of my own life. It’s fairly remarkable: Despite the fact that Rubin writes only about herself, I found everything she wrote perfectly applicable to me. I also appreciated when she admitted that, at times, trying to be happy doesn’t make her happy, because it’s such hard work. This paradox plagues me constantly, too.
The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, by Kathleen Alcott
Reviewer: Anne Glenn; age 28; married; Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Anne’s assessment: Alcott’s lyrical debut follows three friends—Ida, Jackson, and James—as they come of age and chronicles the ways in which their long-standing friendship grows complicated. Told in a series of vignettes, and therefore lacking a traditional plot, this book beautifully (if at times verbosely) portrays the intensity of young love and the trouble its volatility can cause. When Alcott digs deep into Ida’s psychology, describing her obsession with Jackson and her loss of innocence, her prose really hits home.
Reviewer: William Belcher; age 34; married with two kids; Greenwich, New York.
William’s assessment: This novel follows an unnamed narrator as he travels to a dreary Eastern European city to house-sit for his fastidious friend Oskar. As the simple task of keeping the ultramodern home in prime condition goes awry, his sanity unravels and the plot devolves into farce. The author is the deputy editor of Icon, a magazine dedicated to architecture and design. This background shows: Great attention is paid to objects and rooms, shapes and styles, as well as their meaning. The narrator paints perfection as a fool’s game and posits that we who strive for it are fools—trapped by absurd expectations, spilling wine all over our expensive oak floors.
Nakia’s assessment: Two families settle on a small island off the coast of California—one in 1888, the other in 1930—in this historical saga. Reading about the trials and tribulations of the Waters family, the first family to settle on San Miguel, nearly bored me to tears. Three people surrounded by nothing but sheep, sand dunes, and horrible weather? There’s nothing entertaining about that, at least for me. I wish Boyle had dedicated more space to the Waters’s headstrong daughter, Edith, and how her life turned out. San Miguel was not my cup of tea, but it could please readers who live for historical fiction and aren’t too concerned about a gripping plot.
Reviewer: Seana Norvell; age 28; married with one child; Santa Cruz, California.
Seana’s assessment: This latest work from the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist immerses the reader in the lives of two couples—Archy and Gwen, and Nat and Aviva—who co-own a used-vinyl shop in Berkeley, California. Through music and flashbacks, the story jumps from the early 2000s to the 1970s and back again. At times Chabon’s descriptions of the stress of daily life were so real that I had to put the book down and take a deep breath. The story of Archy and Gwen, who are expecting a baby, resonated with me most. I have a 7-month-old daughter, so I found it easy to relate to their anxiety as they prepared for their child’s birth. The book reminded me to enjoy every moment—no matter what the future holds.
Reviewer: Lauren Pinchin; age 28; married; Eugene, Oregon.
Lauren’s assessment: On a tiny, secluded island, a 12-year-old girl named Minou lives with her father, a magician, and a clever dog. They are determined to find Minou’s mother, who, a year earlier, left the house carrying a big, black umbrella and never returned. Reading the book is a bit like gazing inside a snow globe: Even though their world has been shaken by a devastating loss, the characters remain motionless—trapped in a strange place, with no ability to move forward. In fact, seeing the world through Minou’s eyes brought me back to my childhood and what it felt like to watch my parents’ marriage fall apart and my life as I knew it disappear.
All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments, by Alex Witchel
Reviewer: Meena Sajwani; age 29; married; New York City.
Meena’s assessment: In this warm memoir, Witchel recounts her mother’s mental decline and the solace she derived from preparing family recipes. I related to the author’s desire to hold fast to her mother. My mom embodies so much: family, traditions, home. I worry about how I’ll cope when she passes away someday. This book was a comfort, reminding me that nothing can ever rob me of her love.
Reviewer: Yael Zoldan; age 37; married with five kids; Passaic, New Jersey.
Yael’s assessment: I was shaken by this cautionary tale of what can happen when a family’s secrets become larger than the love they share. The novel centers on Elson Harding and his ex-wife, Cadence, as they face their failures as parents and partners when their daughter is expelled from college. It raises many questions: When do children and parents become equals? How far does loyalty go? Can a failed marriage be revived? I wished I could help the characters as they flailed in the darkness, sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand of alienation.
Reviewer: Angelica Martin; age 26; single; Los Angeles.
Angelica’s assessment: This terrific novel alternates between two compelling narratives. The first is set in Seattle in 1933: An impoverished single mother kisses her young son, Daniel, good night and leaves to work the night shift at a hotel. When she returns early the next morning, Daniel is missing. The second plot follows Seattle Herald reporter Claire Aldridge in 2010, as she learns of Daniel’s long-ago disappearance and vows to bring justice to his family. An intoxicating blend of mystery, history, and romance, this book is hard to put down. Just be sure you don’t rush through it, though.
Reviewer: Zoe Saint-Paul; age 44; married; Baltimore.
Zoe’s assessment: War is no longer a shared burden. There is a chasm between those who fight and those who continue their lives as usual. Written by a veteran (and a poet), this Iraq War novel helps bridge that divide. I came away feeling more connected to the horrors of war and more knowledgeable about how war forever alters both individuals and families.
Reviewer: Savannah Butler; age 28; married with three kids; Conway, Arkansas.
Savannah’s assessment: Soli’s novel follows Northern California rancher Claire Baumsarg in the years that follow a terrible tragedy: the murder of her youngest son. While I usually prefer lighter, more optimistic fiction, Soli’s elegant prose—filled with loving details, dynamic characters, and lots of intrigue—enchanted me. She mines the depths of a mother’s despair and later vividly portrays the grieving process that follows a radical mastectomy. The book is a near pitch-perfect look at a life fully—albeit imperfectly—lived.
Reviewer: Meena Sajwani; age 30; writer/producer; New York City.
Meena’s assessment: This novel traces the life of a family as they spend summers at their New England seaside estate. Beginning in 1942 and ending in 1999, it explores sibling politics, the power of nostalgia, and how, try as we might, we can never escape the reach of outside forces. As they gossiped, chatted, and laughed, the characters reminded me of my own relatives. A perfect coffee-cup-in-hand Sunday read.
Reviewer: Lauren Pinchin; age 28; music-festival coordinator; Eugene, Oregon.
Lauren’s assessment: Twins Christa and Cara are inseparable—until the age of 29, when Cara dies of an accidental drug overdose, splintering the sisters’ sameness forever. Overcome with grief, Christa almost takes her own life in response. This memoir is more than the tale of how Christa survives her loss; it’s also a love story. The sisters’ bond is every bit as profound as that between husband and wife or parent and child.
Reviewer: Anne Glenn; age 29; high school Latin teacher; Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Anne’s assessment: Set on a weeklong cruise, The Blue Book takes you on an intimate, emotional journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The story recounts what happens when a couple, Derek and Elizabeth, board the same ship as Elizabeth’s former lover, Arthur. Starting from page one, an untrustworthy narrator addresses you, the reader, as a friend. It’s an arresting and fun literary technique that hooks you into the plot right away. And the story itself is fast-paced and funny and keeps you guessing.
Reviewer: Seana Norvell; age 29; publicist; Santa Cruz, California.
Seana’s assessment: I couldn’t put down this heartrending book. It follows three fictional characters: Vera Dare, a Depression-era photographer; Mary Coin, a mother who becomes the subject of Dare’s most famous photo; and a present-day professor who studies the image. Silver unveils truths about family, happiness, and ambition—and shows how little you can know about someone from a picture. The book changed the way I think about strangers. Now I try not to prejudge people based on appearances. Instead I approach them with an open heart and mind.
Reviewer: William Belcher; age 35; grant writer; Greenwich, New York.
William’s assessment: In his new novel, award-winning 88-year-old author William H. Gass explores the nature of identity. It’s a slow, thoughtful book by design, one that forces the reader to reflect on guilt, disappointment, and how people reinvent themselves. There’s a basic plot—it follows a boy from his childhood in Austria to his adulthood in America—but the focus is on the protagonist’s complex inner conflict and his shifting philosophies. Read it with two fingers of whiskey.
Reviewer: Jessica Underwood; age 23; chef; Waterloo, New York.
Jessica’s assessment: At the age of 15, two best friends, reclusive Thomas and extroverted Adam, inadvertently cause a terrible accident. They keep it a secret for years, but the event continues to haunt them: When the book begins, just over a decade after the tragedy, Adam must journey to India to rescue Thomas from his all-consuming despair.
I’ve never had a dark secret, but I’ve wrestled with guilt and regret, just as Adam and Thomas do. Reading At the Bottom of Everything helped me realize that while life’s worst experiences have the power to destroy us, they also have the capacity to strengthen us—if we only let them.
Reviewer: Sarai Narvaez; age 27; community organization director; Brooklyn.
Sarai’s assessment: It’s 1979, and in the winding hiking trails of Mount Tamalpais, in Marin County, California, a serial killer is on a rampage. As the tally of his victims mounts, 13-year-old Rachel—who lives just beneath the mountain with her mother and her younger sister, Patty—becomes obsessed with identifying the murderer.
But this book is far from a simple whodunit. Although there is plenty of intrigue and adventure to be found, the heart of the tale is Rachel’s indestructible relationship with her younger sister and her blind adoration of her semi-absent father, the detective on the case.
As an older sister myself, I connected with Rachel and Patty’s bond and grew increasingly worried about them as the story progressed. The book deftly conveys that we are never truly safe, but that we can’t let fear stand in the way of our becoming who we want to be.
Reviewer: Hardeep Gill; age 22; college student; Vacaville, California.
Hardeep’s assessment: Normally when I read short stories, I like to dip in and out, but I found Perrotta’s wise and witty collection too engrossing to put down for long. Each of the stories took me on an unexpected journey into the life of a different suburban dweller, from a straight-A student inexplicably denied college acceptance to a divorced dad who suffers a breakdown on his son’s Little League field. The characters seem familiar, like your own neighbors, and yet undeniably mysterious. (Everyone has a skeleton in the closet.) Brimming with emotion, the tales move along at a quick clip and, best of all, end with a surprising twist.
Sarah’s assessment: In the heart of Manhattan, young attorney Ingrid Yung is mere weeks away from becoming a partner at the powerhouse law firm of Parsons Valentine & Hunt LLP. But when Ingrid, one of the firm’s few women of color, witnesses a racist, misogynistic performance at the company’s annual summer outing, she begins to question the office’s power structure and the motives behind her rising status within it. A master storyteller, Wan (who is an employee of Time Inc., Real Simple’s parent company) paints a realistic and immersing portrait of the elite world of corporate law. She had me rooting for Ingrid’s success and her happiness from the first chapter.
Reviewer: Emily Dupill; age 34; furniture store owner; Peru, Maine.
Emily’s assessment: Set in New York City in the late 1800s, this intriguing, thought-provoking work of historical fiction is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
It’s inspired by the true story of Ann Jones (called Axie in the book), a woman who transformed herself from a destitute teenager into Madame X, a well-to do midwife who performs illegal abortions. Axie is fascinating and full of contradictions: She trusts no one, yet countless women entrust her with their lives; she thrives on self-reliance but can’t be happy until she learns to depend on others. I couldn’t get enough of her.
Reviewer: Katherine Barrett Baker; age 52; director of an etiquette school; Manakin-Sabot, Virginia.
Katherine’s assessment: This quietly moving story begins in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood just after Prohibition. (Picture boys playing stickball in the street and women cleaning their windows with vinegar and newspaper.) It follows Marie, a poor Irish Catholic girl who lives with her mother, father, and brother, beginning in her youth, when her greatest joy is waiting on the stoop for her father, and ending in her old age. Told through a series of vignettes, each in a different year, the book depicts Marie’s experiences with the most important people in her life, from her immediate family to a boy who breaks her heart to her boss at a funeral home. Nothing particularly extraordinary happens, yet Marie’s life story is consistently compelling—rife with heartache and joy, triumph and disappointment.
Reviewer: Ingrid Witherell; age 33; receptionist; Keene, New Hampshire.
Ingrid’s assessment: I had never read Lahiri before I picked up this book, but now I’m her biggest fan. It’s impossible not to be swept up by her melodic prose. As I read this novel, I wished I could jump into the story to protect her characters.
The narrative begins with the story of Subhash and Udayan, brothers born 15 months apart in mid-20th century Calcutta. After college, Udayan, fearless, finds himself drawn to a radical Communist movement, while the more dutiful Subhash heads to America to pursue a quiet academic life. When Subhash learns that Udayan has made the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs, he returns to Calcutta to repair the hurt felt by those his brother left behind, including his pregnant widow. The political and familial drama that ensues—spanning generations and continents—is astonishing.
Reviewer: Carol Germinario; age 60; registered nurse; Secaucus, New Jersey.
Carol’s assessment: After Frank Joyner decides to lease his family’s farmland to a natural-gas company for hydrofracking, chaos ensues. (Herrin deftly explains the mechanics of this controversial practice so that anyone can understand it.) His decision exacerbates tensions in the Joyner clan and even sparks flare-ups of mental illness in his own son. Fast-paced and immersing, the novel offers a fascinating take on the power of money and politics.
Reviewer: Andrea Bledsoe King; age 38; librarian; Memphis.
Andrea’s assessment: Set on a quaint New England college campus, Stone’s latest murder mystery centers on the death of an outspoken student, Maud Stack, who is killed in a hit-and-run accident. But Maud isn’t just any college girl: She has been having an affair with a married professor. Suddenly her “accidental demise” doesn’t seem like an accident. Complex, beguiling, and brimming with emotion, this book turned me, an avowed literary-fiction reader, into a Robert Stone fan.
Reviewer: Debra Resch; age 61; computer-education facilitator; West Creek, New Jersey.
Debra’s assessment: Wife, mother, and artist Annie Oh is about to upend her family. Having fallen in love with a female friend, she elects to leave her husband and wed her new paramour in Connecticut (where same-sex marriage is legal). But as the wedding approaches, long-hidden truths come to light. Annie, it turns out, is still haunted by childhood trauma. Through alternating perspectives (Annie, her ex-husband, and her three children take turns narrating the story), this addicting novel reveals how secrets can define a person and wreak havoc on her loved ones.
A Permanent Member of the Family, by Russell Banks
Reviewer: Katrine Poe; age 54; English professor; Woodstock, Illinois.
Katrine’s assessment: This short-story collection is what American literature should be: a reflection on the lives of regular people facing real-life challenges. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read in years. These stories depict the full spectrum of human emotion—from loss to love to wanting to be recognized for who you are—without ever hitting a false or saccharine note. Reading this book, I was led to ask myself: What is family? What is permanence? How do my actions determine my fate? I can’t remember the last time that a book had such a huge impact on me.
Reviewer: Fayeruz Regan; age 37; freelance writer; Richmond, Virginia.
Fayeruz’s assessment: In this insightful memoir, Menaker leads his readers down the hallowed halls of The New Yorker, where he served as the fiction editor for 18 years, and Random House, where he was editor in chief and vice president, beginning in 2003. But the book isn’t all business. Menaker also delves into the ups and downs of his personal life, from summers at his uncle’s camp to the adoption of his children to the death of his mother. Tender, smart, and witty, this book is truly unputdownable.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett
Reviewer: Emily Dupill; age 34; furniture-store owner; Peru, Maine.
Emily’s assessment: Reading this collection of 22 beautiful, heartfelt essays about marriage, divorce, friendship, and career felt a bit like listening to a close friend confiding her regrets, fears, and happiest memories. While all the essays were a joy to read (and relaxing, too), Patchett’s moving meditation on her late grandmother was my favorite. No matter your interest, you’ll find words in this book that speak to you.
Reviewer: Diana Colvard; age 59; conservation-programs specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Sherwood, Arkansas.
Diana’s assessment: When this sweeping saga of World War I begins, a British couple have just found the title character, an American nurse suffering from amnesia, languishing in a park in London and allow her to recuperate in their home. As Stella’s health improves, her astonishing backstory is slowly revealed—and it’s one that twists and turns in brilliant and unexpected ways. Shreve is a versatile writer, depicting the brutality of battle just as compellingly as she does the early stages of love. She had me rooting for Stella’s happiness the whole way through and left me completely satisfied at the end.
The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg
Reviewer: Katherine Barrett Baker; age 52; director of an etiquette school; Manakin-Sabot, Virginia.
Katherine’s assessment: This novel craftily cross-stitches together two very different families, cultures, and times in American history. One story takes place in present-day Point Clear, Alabama, as the all-American Simmons family struggles to become more modern, tolerant, and multicultural. The other story follows the Polish Jurdabralinskis, of Pulaski, Wisconsin, during World War II. Their four daughters work as attendants in their father’s filling station, until the eldest three leave to become U.S. Air Force pilots. How do the two families connect? Read this sweet, surprising tale to find out.
Reviewer: Ingrid Witherell; age 33; animal-hospital receptionist; Keene, New Hampshire.
Ingrid’s assessment: Fans of Tan’s previous works (including The Joy Luck Club) will rejoice when they get their hands on this book. Rife with love and loss, power and betrayal, and spanning half a century, the story centers on Violet, an American, and her half-Chinese, half-American daughter, Lucia, as they work in an upscale courtesan house in 19th-century Shanghai. The subject reminded me of Arthur Golden’s 1997 best seller, Memoirs of a Geisha, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this novel became just as popular.