What we're reading: EW's books staff picks their recent favorites
Beginning this June, EW’s books staff will be selecting some of their favorite recent reads on a monthly basis, whether new releases or older titles they’ve just caught up on. In addition, you can check out all of the books EW has covered over the past month here, including reviews and interviews. These picks are perfect for book clubs, beach reads, and (hopefully) sustained breaks from the iPhone.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
I picked up this book because it reminded me of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time — my favorite of her titles and one of my personal top novels of 2016 — both in its eye-catching yellow cover and use of classical arts as a framing device for its characters’ journey. Where Swing Time used a childhood dance class to introduce readers to its main characters, The Ensemble follows a classical music group.
It opens in 1990s San Francisco, where the Van Ness quartet is celebrating their final performance at a prestigious conservatory and preparing to enter a high-stakes competition. Jana is the controlling lead violinist battling a troubled relationship with her alcoholic mother; Daniel is the cellist with several years on the rest of the group and a chip on his shoulder to boot; Brit is the thoughtful second violinist who wants a relationship with Daniel that he’s not ready to provide; and Henry is the young protégé with a provided background.
The book switches back and forth between each of their perspectives, following their lives and careers (which are hopelessly intertwined), from Northern California to New York and back again, through dating and heartache and children and parental disappointments. There isn’t a ton of drama here and there are no plot twists, but the language that Gabel uses to describe both the pressures of prestige chamber orchestras and, simply, what it is to be a human in this world, is a work of art in and of itself.
I found myself highlighting dozens of passages, marveling at just how impossibly relatable these people are — despite the fact that they don’t have much in common with me beyond the desire to be fulfilled. This isn’t a beach read in the traditional sense, but it’s the perfect form of escapism for me. —Seija Rankin
Sweet and Low by Nick White
White caught my attention last year with his underrated debut novel, How to Survive a Summer, a rather devastating account of a gay-to-straight conversion camp in the heart of Mississippi. So I was glad to see he had another book out so soon. Sweet and Low (published June 5) is a book of short stories, tackling themes of masculinity and sexuality in the contemporary American South, and it doesn’t disappoint. This is a superbly executed collection, a real showcase for its author that cements him as one of our most promising and exciting queer-fiction writers.
Particularly, Sweet and Low is an exemplary study in how to draw in your reader quickly and deeply: I read these stories while on a short vacation, during bumpy airplane rides and lazy beach days, and found every one totally immersive, bite-sized treats filled with meaning and humor and empathy. The first entrant is also among the best, a quiet story centered on a widow and her late husband’s lover, both grieving and finding their paths gradually converging. As in the rest of the book, the way these characters behave feels so strange and inexplicable and, yet, lifelike. And the final image White describes is so acutely, subtly haunting it quite literally took my breath away, and stayed with me for days. White is particularly great at endings: finding ways to so succinctly and thoughtfully cap narratives of only a few pages.
White borrows from staples of Southern Gothic and queer literature to affirm a voice that’s wholly his own. His imagery is stark and dreamy, paragraphs flowing like paintings-in-motion. Sometimes his stories span only a few days, as in the wise portrait of a gay couple on the verge of breaking up, only to encounter vicious homophobia, while others — like the gorgeously mysterious titular entrant, about the evolving relationship between a single mother and her son — span years, and capture lifetimes.
The shortest tale is a bitter delight, in which a bigot is granted his comeuppance; the longest is the strongest, a weird wonder about a troubled teenager who connects with conjoined twins. In each story, death hovers, pain lingers, and life finds a way. Lose yourself in one when you’ve got a half-hour to spare. This book is a treasure, and I can’t wait to see what White does next. —David Canfield
You Were Made for This by Michelle Sacks
Oh how I love a good, mean domestic thriller. 2018 hasn’t exactly been light on them, with best-sellers including The Woman in the Window and The Perfect Nanny offering especially addicting doses of psychological dread, and I’ve got another worthy page-turner to add to the pile: You Were Made for This, the debut novel of Michelle Sacks. Rarely has reading about terrible people being terrible felt so satisfying.
Seriously though, as a disclaimer: This is a pretty diabolical novel. Sacks begins by depicting the picture-perfect marriage of Sam and Merry, the former a distinguished academic and aspiring filmmaker, and the latter a killer baker. (No pun intended… yet.) Together with their cherished son Conor, the family packs up their bougie Brooklyn life for a simpler one in a remote cottage, in Sweden, and experiences the kind of day-to-day bliss that only the Scandinavian countryside can provide. But there’s an enveloping menace to the action: The novel is alternately told in Sam and Merry’s point-of-view, and things are — shocker! — not quite what they seem.
You Were Made for This really kicks off with the arrival of Frank, Merry’s close friend who’s promptly disarmed by the idyllic life she’s walked in on. She, erm, knows things. And her dynamic with Merry quickly comes to overwhelm the novel; without spoiling things, shocking revelations pile on and the plot turns in astonishingly bleak directions. If this doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, maybe stop now — indeed, things get disturbing, particularly as themes of abuse move to the fore.
Each of the three principal characters is just awful, but that’s entirely the fun of it. Sacks stuffs her sentences with intrigue and terror, and her prose effortlessly weaves between each of the narrators, giving them a distinct voice that’s all-too-easy to be convinced by. She keeps you on the edge of your seat as the tension ratchets up, and also makes room for genuine insight, particularly in Frank and Merry’s complicated, fraught, and juicily competitive back-and-forths. You Were Made for This leans toward nihilism at times, and its final third can be a bit too bewildering for its own good. But this is a gripping, smart, dire family drama to sink into on a muggy afternoon. —DC
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
It’s been a big year for Meg Wolitzer. Her latest novel, The Female Persuasion, released to high anticipation and praise in April (and is currently a best-seller), and Nicole Kidman announced an upcoming adaptation of the feminist coming-of-age tale shortly thereafter. And this August one of her earliest novels, The Wife, will hit big screens with a starring role from none other than Glenn Close. It was this impending cinematic experience that made me pick up the tome in the first place.
I consider myself something of a middling Wolitzer-phile. I first came to love her writing through The Interestings, falling for the characters’ deep desires for a life larger than their own. I’ve since devoured many of her subsequent titles (The Uncoupling and The Ten Year Nap are two standouts in my, er, book) yet wholly managed to skip The Wife. That, I’m pained to admit, was a grave mistake.
Wolitzer wrote this a whopping 15 years ago, yet, in a feat that is either impressively prescient or a depressing example of our lack of improvement. It’s ostensibly about a woman who, after a long marriage to a literary icon, decides to leave him while they’re flying to an awards ceremony for a highly sought after writing prize. As Joan Castleman compares her experience in Helsinki, with all the praises heaped on her husband, to a life spent in his shadow, she makes countless keen observations about the battle of the sexes (make that genders). And as the book winds itself into the climax, the big reveal gives us a perfectly-sized taste of drama.
Wolitzer is so clearly able to articulate exactly what it feels like to live unsatisfied in a man’s world that it’s hard to even begin to describe it. Instead, I’ll let her say it in her own words:
“[Male novelists] weren’t afraid to have alter egos; they weren’t afraid to have egos. They owned the world, remember, and everything in it. I didn’t own the world; no one had offered it to me. I didn’t want to be a ‘lady writer,’ a word-painter in watercolors, or on the other hand a crazy woman…I had no idea who could love a show-off woman writer. What sort of man would stay with her and not be threatened by her excesses, her rage, her spirit, her skill? Who was he, this phantom, unthreatened husband who was still attractive and strong himself? Maybe he lived under a rock somewhere, sliding out once in a while to celebrate the big ideas of his brilliant wife, before returning to the shadows.” —SR
June’s Hottest Books
The President Is Missing: Bill Clinton makes his literary debut, sharing a credit with James Patterson on this already hugely-popular thriller. Read an exclusive excerpt.
The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai traces the generational effects of the AIDS crisis with shattering poignancy in her third novel. Read EW’s review.
A Place for Us: Sarah Jessica Parker has launched her new book imprint with this epic family tale, written by new author Fatima Farheen Mirza. Read EW’s interview with Parker.
Florida: Lauren Groff’s anticipated follow-up to her President Obama-endorsed Fates and Furies is an atmospheric short story collection that verges on overpowering. Read EW’s review.
When Life Gives You Lululemons: Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger is back with another dishy best-seller, this one set in Greenwich, Conn. Read EW’s interview with the author.
When Katie Met Cassidy: Camille Perri’s new romance is sweet and smart, if a little light on heat. Read EW’s review.