The Fall Novel Guide
A privileged problem: Too many really good books came out this summer to fit them all in before Labor Day, and this fall’s reads are proving equally strong. Below, our favorites of late, along with what’s currently on our bedside tables (i.e. keeping us—happily—up at night).
At the tender age of twenty-three, a young Adam Gopnik boarded a bus to New York from Montreal with his soon-to-be-wife Martha Parker. In the New Yorker writer’s trademark acutely observant prose, the book retraces the couple’s first decade spent in a rapidly changing Manhattan. (He’s also written two other memoirs, Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate.) From their tiny Upper East Side basement as newlyweds, where the author notes that, “all good marriages have arguments, but it’s the same argument again and again,” to their move to a SoHo loft in the thick of the downtown art scene boom, the pages regale in Gopnik’s New York, which is both charmed and full of fortuitous misadventure. (Think: a chance meeting with Richard Avedon and a hilariously ill-suited stint as a keeper at the Frick Art Reference Library.) It’s a touching read, particularly for anyone who has spent their young adult life trying to make it in New York.
Enchanted Islands takes morsels of true events and blows them into an epic narrative. Writer Allison Amend drew her characters from the memoirs of Frances Conway, a real-life ex-resident of the Galapagos, stationed at the islands around World War II. Amend fleshed out her Conway to be a Jewish American spy and a complicated friend, who had an even more complicated relationship with her husband Ainslie. From Conway’s interactions with other “castaways” on the island to her life-long friendship with a best friend who betrays her, every story arc in this novel is intoxicating.
On the surface, this is a fast-paced read for fans of thrillers, a novel that unfolds over the course of three hours when a typical day at the zoo for mom Joan and four-year-old son Lincoln goes disastrously, dangerously awry. At a deeper layer, it’s also a rumination on motherhood—the monotony and thrill, the duty and risk, the incredible, sometimes indescribable fear and joy of raising a child.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, chose her hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio as the setting for her sophomore novel, which takes place in the 1990’s and poignantly explores issues of class and race. It’s sharp and entertaining—you can’t look away even when things are crashing and burning (literally)—and it possibly ranks up there with all-time great suburbia fiction, like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (which we don’t say lightly).
Arguably, no novel has garnered as much pre-buzz in the office as current #goopbookclub pick, Manhattan Beach. Clearly we’re not alone in our excitement—or love–for Pulitzer Prize-winning Jennifer Egan, whose latest was longlisted for the National Book Award. Largely set in 1940’s New York City, and highly atmospheric, Manhattan Beach marks Egan’s first historical novel, but the story of Anna Kerrigan—which circles around the disappearance of her father, and a man named Dexter Styles who is central to it—is so immediate, and expertly written, that the genre is really beside the point.
Speaking of suburban-set fiction, Tom Perrotta’s latest alternates between divorced, newly empty-nesting Eve Fletcher and her college freshman son, Brendan—who, in their own ways, are both experiencing sorts of sexual awakenings. In another writer’s hands, Eve and Brendan would be all stereotype and satire—but Perrotta is generous even when he’s poking fun. What’s interesting, particularly with Eve’s bumbling adventures, is how Perrotta shows that, in life, the difference between ordinary and peculiar is sometimes so minuscule as to be invisible. Not surprisingly (Perrotta’s last book, The Leftovers, became a TV show), Mrs. Fletcher is an episodic read that can be conveniently consumed in chunks.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Nike was not a huge, iconic brand: Shoe Dog is the story of how Nike founder Phil Knight gave up everything to chase the perfect running shoe. It’s an epic tale of the pursuit of greatness with a rag-tag team of runners (which was not a chic thing to be in the 60’s), with lots of twists and turns and surprises along the way, and an inspiring message: “Let everyone else call your idea crazy, just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there.” (If you’re behind the game, like us, in getting to this one, note that the paperback releases in January.)
Of course we’d read a novel about a family of psychics including a telekinetic brother and a human lie detector of a sister: Once coined the Amazing Telemachus Family, Daryl Gregory’s charmingly drawn clan finds themselves sorely down on their luck in the present. Part of the fun here is riding along as they try to get their mojo back, and part lies in untangling the aspects of their characters that make them gifted psychics, clever con artists, and perhaps, most relatable, everyday dreamers.
This novel, which follows the lives of a New York couple navigating life with a child on the spectrum, turns the cliché of the older husband and flighty young wife duo on its head. It’s humorous and touching, lighthearted and real. You’ll miss these characters after you turn the last page—we wished we could have kept peering into their lives a little longer.
Stay with Me opens in Nigeria in the 1980’s with Yejide and Akin, who have been married for four years and who remain childless despite consulting all manner of fertility doctors and healers. As the book carries the reader forward into the next decades of their lives, it becomes evident that this is a story at least in part about secrets (no spoilers, just read it), as much as it is a commentary on the division and similarities between tradition and modernity, masculinity and femininity. It’s stirring and sometimes maddening—sections will leave you beside yourself—a debut that marks the beginning of what should be a stunning career.
Currently reading: John Boyne’s tenth novel begins in sixteen-year-old Catherine Goggin’s small Irish village, which, pregnant and not married, she is being kicked out of. The protagonist of the saga, though, is her son, Cyril, who is adopted as a baby by a wealthy couple in the city of Dublin. It’s decidedly dark, never sentimental, the kind of book that really can make you laugh and cry.
Author of At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcón’s new short story collection releases on October 31. It’s a brilliant meditation on personality and place, character and circumstance, and the decisions small and big (within and beyond) one’s control that can shape a life. Alarcón moves from the personal to the collective, encompassing stories of migration, immigration, violence, loss, hope, love. In “The Ballad of Rocky Rontal,” Alarcón explores the potential for forgiveness and redemption through a man who has spent thirty-plus years in jail. “The Provincials” plays with the ideas of roads not taken; “The Thousands” with the notion of starting anew.
Longlisted for the Man Booker, this story centers around Anjum, born a hermaphrodite in Old Delhi and later on, Tilo, a student with a fugitive Kashmiri lover. The complicated, difficult lives of both characters and the wider violence, political tension, beauty, and hope in the novel act as metaphors for the struggles of contemporary India—constantly racing toward modernity but burdened by the events of the past. (Somehow not as heavy as it sounds, and so, so good.)
Nathan Hill’s debut published to critical acclaim last year (pick up the paperback, which came out this year, if you missed it the first time around, too). Weighty with hints of satire—touching everything from the cashier at Whole Foods to video games and police brutality—The Nix‘s richly drawn plot and characters quickly pull you in, and don’t let go.
Matthew Quick is best known for The Silver Linings Playbook, and while his new book focuses on a wildly different type of character, there’s similarity to be found in the way his storytelling explores the human psyche in a totally delightful manner. The Reason You’re Alive follows the story of David Granger, a crass, cantankerous Vietnam vet navigating complex relationships with his son and granddaughter as he relives and remembers pieces of his own past, which Quick reveals chapter by chapter. It’s a funny, impactful read that goes by way too fast.
Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette?) is great at creating quirky characters you feel an immense amount of empathy towards. Today Will Be Different is a modern underdog tale, starring Eleanor Flood, a woman who admittedly does not have it all together. The book, which takes place in the course of a single day, is the ideal weekend read. (It also happens to be in the works as a TV adaptation with Julia Roberts as the lead.)