Before stocking up on summer reads, revisit the titles that wowed us in the first (colder) half of 2018. EW book critics David Canfield and Leah Greenblatt break down the best of the year so far. (List unranked, cutoff for consideration: May 31, 2018)
Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday
A pretty, young book editor in post-9/11 New York falls into an ambiguous love affair with a revered, much older novelist who may or may not be modeled on the late Philip Roth; an Iraqi-American researcher trapped in TSA purgatory looks back on his bifurcated life; years later, that same famous novelist unexpectedly reveals long-held secrets to a radio host. Halliday’s lauded debut may arrive in three distinct, seemingly disparate parts, but the elegant whole of its impact lingers.
Circe, by Madeline Miller
Miller, a former schoolteacher, follows her breakout 2012 debut, The Song of Achilles, with another vivid reimagining of Greek myth — this time, the titular tale of the Sun God Helios’ disfavored daughter. Circe’s wildly peripatetic life — immortal centuries overflowing with romance, witchcraft, and familial strife — finds fresh resonance in Miller’s gifted hands, and her muse’s quest to forge her own brand of independence is rendered with a style that feels both deeply evocative and gratifyingly relevant to today.
Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi
Freshwater is a novel of staggering ferocity. Following a Nigerian woman living with mental illness — and tracing her life as she moves to America and struggles to overcome a traumatic assault — her story is told by the many distinct voices that take up residence in her mind. It’s also steeped in Nigerian mythology, and through that frame it offers a galvanizing new way of approaching an oft-stigmatized topic. Through Emezi’s bracing prose, mental illness isn’t other-ized; it’s mystical, based in gods and spirits.
I'll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara
McNamara didn’t live to see the publication of her true-crime masterwork, nor was she able to finish it on her terms. But she did leave us with a majestic achievement: an intense account of one woman’s decade-long search for the infamous Golden State Killer, weaving engrossing procedural drama into a nuanced-yet-searing portrait of her obsession. Partly compiled by her surviving husband, Patton Oswalt, I’ll Be Gone is the rare true-crime read that fulfills its genre’s promise: It’s as humane as it is macabre, and tinged with tragedy.
The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin
Four city-dwelling siblings learn the exact date they’ll die, a haunting piece of information that informs the way they’ll carry out what’s left of their troubled, fascinating lives. The Immortalists’ high-concept premise runs the risk of overpowering its big, warm, intimate family story, but it never does. Rather, it adds cosmic depth, attaching provocative ideas about destiny and fate to a deeply relatable tale of growing, loving, and dying.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson
One of the great writers of his era goes out with one of his finest books. Largesse begins with an elliptical, mordantly funny character study about approaching death, and from there offers a series of wildly resonant stories about reflection, regret, and making peace. Johnson (Jesus’ Son) died shortly before this collection was published, a sad fact that only enhances the poignancy with which Largesse considers mortality. American literature has lost a giant, and this book cements that.
The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner
With her richly textured third novel — a story centered on, though hardly limited to, a young single-mother–turned–convicted-murderer marking time in a California women’s prison — Kushner (a two-time National Book Award finalist, for The Flamethrowers and Telex From Cuba) certifies her place as one of the great American novelists of the 21st century.
The Recovering, by Leslie Jamison
For years, she struggled to think of anything but booze. But the latest from Jamison (The Empathy Exams) is nothing if not ambitious: both an impressive survey course in the history of addiction lit, from The Lost Weekend to Jesus’ Son, and a deeply personal chronicle of her jagged path to sobriety. The result, much like its subject(s), is brilliant, messy, and profound.
That Kind of Mother, by Rumaan Alam
Cut a knife through a copy of That Kind of Mother and it’ll bleed red — that’s how real, how fully human, Alam’s new book feels. The Rich and Pretty author offers a gentle, pained take on transracial adoption and America’s stilted cultural evolution in his second novel, mining humor and profundity out of a set of character dynamics that ring remarkably authentic. This isn’t exactly a plot-heavy book, but bask in Alam’s observational prowess, his writing’s blend of empathy and bite, and you’ll find yourself immersed in a different kind of page-turner.
White Houses, by Amy Bloom
First ladies have long lingered in the musty wings of history’s main stage, demure figureheads meant to be seen but not necessarily heard. They could all use a biographer like Bloom, whose impeccable research dissolves seamlessly into fiction in her witty, transportive, often heartbreaking portrait of the real-life romance between Eleanor Roosevelt and Associated Press reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok — a tender, decades-long love story that transcended nearly every social rule and precedent.