What We're Reading: European getaways and life wisdom to ring out the summer
Each month, EW’s books staff selects some of their favorite recent reads, whether new releases or older titles they’ve just caught up on. In addition, you can check out all 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 your iPhone. Read on for more, and check out our column from last month here.
Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney
Have you ever felt compelled to move to a foreign city, surround yourself with impossibly snobby intellectuals, and spend all your time drinking expensive wine and writing poetry? Well, Conversations With Friends is kind of like that, only better. Better in the sense that you don’t actually have to pay for the move or the wine, and because it’s far juicier than what would inevitably happen to me if I abandoned my life to go back to school in Europe.
I picked up this book, which just released on paperback, after Rooney made news for her recent Man Booker nomination for Normal People (out in the U.S. in April). I was craving something highbrow yet enticing, and it more than delivered. Its protagonist is Frances, who attends university in Dublin alongside her best friend (and former flame), Bobbi, and the two meet a semi-famous photographer who quickly takes them under her wing. They become ensconced in her world of dinner parties, book openings, and swanky beach houses, and, for Frances’ part at least, ensconced with her handsome yet brooding husband, Nick.
Nick is a mildly successful actor (okay, that’s being generous) who is prone to bouts of depression and infidelity. It doesn’t take long for the two to begin an illicit affair, which brings a fascinating level of complexity to the group’s social gatherings. The book is basically just a diary from Frances on everything that happens to her during the course of this most adult of semesters, but it reads like both fantastic escapism and a heartfelt insight into the mind of a 21-year-old girl, which, much to my consternation, is getting further and further away from my grasp.
The whole thing should probably come with a trigger warning, because certainly no reader is going to come away from this novel feeling better about the institution of marriage or the possibility of monogamy. It’s kind of like reading all those sordid updates about Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck’s still-ongoing divorce: It makes you sad, but it’s just too good to look away. —Seija Rankin
The Cost of Living, by Deborah Levy
I missed this slim work of memoir from Levy despite being a fan of her fiction — especially her Booker-shortlisted novel Hot Milk from a few years ago. This is the second installment in her “working autobiography,” the first of which was even shorter. It’s supposedly a planned trilogy, so now’s the perfect time to get in on this fascinating literary experiment.
This isn’t the kind of memoir propelled by extraordinary circumstances or perseverance; it’s rooted in the mundane, one writer’s attempt to make sense of her life, peaks, valleys, and all. I wasn’t sure about it as I went on, but ended up reading both The Cost of Living and its predecessor, Things I Don’t Want to Know, back to back. The writing’s gorgeous and pointed, irresistible to dive into. But it’s the ideas that make this such a compelling, provocative page-turner.
What makes Levy a great writer of nonfiction is how observant she is. The book’s two main events, if we’re to call them that, are the death of her mother and the end of her marriage. The former leads to more esoteric musings on womanhood, the assignment and erasure of female names and spaces. The latter propels a moving story of relocation and rebirth, as Levy moves her two young daughters into a small apartment and ruminates on the subtle transformations of her day-to-day life.
If this sounds a little slight for your taste, I strongly recommend giving it a try anyway. Everything flows beautifully here: She describes the new apartment evocatively and crisply; her interactions with various women, familiar and new, inform a powerful and humane feminist argument; asides like a spontaneous electric-bike ride or the realization of an unbuttoned shirt are described playfully, with whimsy and care. And everything moves swiftly. This book is many things — edifying, emotional, delicate — but it is not indulgent. It’s so sharp and affecting and filled with wisdom that, just maybe, you’d be fine if it were. —David Canfield
French Exit, by Patrick deWitt
This is a particularly, ahem, rich moment in time for stories about the obscenely wealthy to start proliferating and booming in popularity — and indeed, here we are. It feels like all I’ve been hearing about this summer is the infectious decadence of Crazy Rich Asians, the Shakespearean sweep of Succession, the trashy resort hookups of Love Island. Not that I’m immune, of course: I didn’t wait long to see Crazy Rich Asians, and I devoured Succession over a few nights. (And, yes, adopted the show’s signature “F— off” as a catchall comeback.) Fantasy and tragedy alike, these glitzy tales are proving endlessly satisfying.
Perhaps my favorite piece in this summer of pop culture opulence? Patrick deWitt’s French Exit, which hit shelves last week. You may recognize the author’s name from The Sisters Brothers, a spin on the 19th-century western (which has been adapted into a film starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, out Sept. 21). French Exit is, conversely, blisteringly contemporary, beginning on New York’s Upper East Side before traveling across the Atlantic by cruise ship, settling in Paris.
To be fair, this isn’t a novel about high-society East Coasters basking in their wealth; it’s a jagged satire about what happens to the one percent when all (well, most) of the money goes away. There are three main players in this story: Frances, the tart widow of a dastardly lawyer whose scandals leave her bankrupt (and her socialite life in tatters); Malcolm, her lazy, unmotivated son and housemate; and their cat, Small Frank, described in plain terms as an ugly old thing who Frances is convinced possesses the spirit of her late husband. After some wheeling and dealing with an estate liquidator, Frances comes away with a few hundred thousand in cash and grudgingly takes an old friend’s recommendation to relocate. She takes Malcolm and Small Frank but leaves behind Malcolm’s fiancée, Susan, for whom she doesn’t have much affection. (If only she knew the right time to order gazpacho.)
French Exit is built in layers like a cake, each to be enjoyed on a different frequency. The first act is probably my favorite, if only because it’s the most scathing. Frances emerges as an ingenious creation, Lucille Bluth by way of David Lynch; deWitt is so good and so funny as he simply traces Frances coming to terms with her limited cash flow, her life of extravagance slowly slipping away. The author gives her smarts and cunning and even a sneaky vulnerability, as she comes to rely on her son and reflects on her marriage — what she’s lost without it, and how much she ever really got from it. I could read her prowl around Manhattan demanding the finest while refusing to pay for it all day long. Her statements are curt, her insults withering. And Malcolm, through his rather pathetic interactions with Susan, provides dashes of pathos and profundity around them. “He was a pile of American garbage,” deWitt observes of him, via Susan. “And she feared she would love him forever.”
The cruise ship interlude dips into more surreal and meditative territory, as deWitt brings his characters into clearer focus. Then the book’s longer final act — Paris — manages simultaneously to turn more absurdist and empathetic. You feel the author’s affection for his characters catch up to him, willing them to happier, kinder endings than they likely deserve. I ate up every bit of nasty cynicism in this novel — indeed, preferred it — but the sappy shift didn’t bother me. It felt strangely cathartic, even, coming at the tail end of this particular summer. Who knew the most powerful, corrupt, and wealthy among us could break our hearts just the same? —David Canfield
The State of Affairs, by Esther Perel
It’s a beautifully privileged thing to have the time and luck to be constantly worried about the state of the world. To carry the sadness of others is to have enough mental space that isn’t used up by your own sadness (or maybe that’s just being a Pisces). But there I was, having just read Conversations With Friends and the upcoming Lake Success, which follows a slightly deranged hedge fund manager as an SEC investigation and his son’s recent autism diagnosis send him spiraling out of control. He leaves his family and takes off on a Greyhound to chase down his old college girlfriend, having himself a few, er, dalliances on the (very long) way to El Paso.
The combination of those two novels back to back had the effect of finding out that, say, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are divorcing (please never let that happen!). It’s not exactly uplifting, Valentine’s Day-card material. So where does a person turn when they need a book to renew their faith in a timeless institution? The venerable Esther Perel, of course.
Anyone who has ever watched a TED Talk or followed Gwyneth Paltrow will be familiar with the therapist’s unconventional approach to relationships (her most famous book is called Mating in Captivity, after all), and The State of Affairs is no different. It’s a provocative look at how our modern society has yet to adapt itself to fix our relationship problems, and yes, I really hope that Tom and Rita have read it — just to be safe.
It’s easy to get caught up in the flashy new novels that seemingly hit bookshelves by the dozen, so it feels like a refreshing change to dig into some highly researched nonfiction — and that we’re heading into back-to-school season is no coincidence here. Regardless of your relationship status, Perel has something to offer, and all the better to gird yourself for the inevitable next celebrity divorce. —Seija Rankin
August’s hottest books
Cherry: Nico Walker’s gritty, profane, and raw debut (written on a typewriter in prison) is drawn from his own experiences fighting in the Iraq war before falling into drug addiction and a life of crime. Read EW’s review.
Unhinged: No, the Omarosa memoir is not a book for the ages. Read EW’s review, as well as our guide to everyone the former White House aide calls out.