Tag Archives: Claire Messud

Five Novels I’ve Read Set in New York

Rather like Berlin, a New York setting is catnip for me. I only need to spot it in a novel’s blurb and it’s on my list which is not always a good thing. I’ve only visited the city once but I think it’s more its almost mythical aura that attracts me rather than the actuality not that I didn’t love it when I was there. You can be sure that there’ll be a Berlin post in this series at some stage but for now, Cover imagehere are five of my favourite novels set in New York City, a couple with links to reviews on this blog.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse is all about the New York book world, neatly satisfying two obsessions for me. Paul Dukach conceives a lifelong passion for Ida Perkins’ poetry as a teenager. Thanks to the well-connected Morgan, Paul finds his way into publishing world, soon gaining a reputation for his sharp editorial eye. He’s offered a job by Homer Stern, the louche, foul-mouthed owner of one of the city’s two most revered literary publishing houses, its lists stuffed full of Nobel Prize winners, but it’s Homer’s rival, Sterling Wainwright, who has an iron grip on the rights to Perkins’ work. By the end of the book Paul will have fulfilled his wildest dreams but not without a twinge or two of conscience. A poet and one of the head honchos at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Galassi takes us into the world of literary publishing, replete with gossipy detail and sharply observed satire while posing questions about the nature of literary fame. A smart, funny novel written by a man who knows a thing or three about Paul’s world.

I fell in love with Brightness Falls to such an extent that I remember sending H off for a walk into the lovely Corsican maquis on his own so that I could finish it. It’s the first in a trilogy which continued with the disappointing The Good Life and finished with Bright, Precious, Days. All three follow Corinne and Russell Calloway, a glittering New York couple. To their friends, theirs is the perfect marriage but when Russell is caught up in an audacious plan to take over the publishing company in which he’s the rising editorial star, things begin to fall apart. The adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of the deal takes its toll on both Russell and Corrine, just as the excesses of the ’80s have on many others in New York City, from their friend Jeff, now in detox, to the homeless crack addicts on every street corner. The reckoning finally comes on 19 October 1987 when the bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler The Bonfire of the Vanities was often cited as the quintessential yuppie novel but for me Brightness Falls summed up the folly of the ’80s very much better and with a great deal more humanity.Cover image

Beginning in early 2001 Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children inhabits similar literary territory to Brightness Falls presenting a portrait of New York through the eyes of three thirty-year-old friends living in Manhattan. All of them once thought they had a bright future but none seems to have fulfilled that promise. Marina has spent the advance she was awarded and has returned home to live with her parents. Julius is subsidised by his boyfriend having failed to support himself with his reviews. Danielle is unemployed and involved with two men, one of whom is Marina’s literary critic father. The attacks of 9/11 throw all the cards up into the air for these three as it did for so many. Published several years after the atrocity, Messud’s novel captures the city both before and after this cataclysmic event in an immersive, satisfying novel.

Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side takes us from literary New York to residential Manhattan where Charlie is cock-a-hoop having secured a space in the parking lot of the cul-de-sac where he and Nora have lived for a couple of decades. Theirs is a tightly knit community, tolerant of George, its self-appointed overseer, given to pushing instructions through their letter boxes about what other residents should and should not do. This privileged set of householders looks to the likes of Ricky, the handyman, to keep things ticking over smoothly. One day a shocking act of violence rocks the street, setting off fault lines in relationships that will undermine some irretrievably. With its perceptive exploration of middle-aged marriage, Alternate Side inhabits quintessential Quindlen territory. Overly ambitious comparisons abound in publishers’ blurbs, but Quindlen’s writing really does rank alongside Elizabeth Strout’s and AnnTyler’s for me. If you haven’t yet read her work, I hope you’ll give her try.

Cover imageKathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk takes us on a tour of Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984 in the company of an 85-year-old who arrived in New York in the ’30s, beginning her career as a lowly copywriter for Macy’s and ending it as the world’s highest paid woman in advertising. Lillian’s evening has not gone as planned. Instead she decides to go for a stroll, telling us her life story as she walks and through it the story of half a century of New York’s history, encompassing the Jazz Age, the Great Depression and AIDS. I loved this novel which is, apparently, based on the story of Margaret Fishback. Lillian is a wonderfully witty and engaging character. Rooney’s book has a charmingly old-fashioned feel about it which seems a satisfying note to end on for me.

What about you – any favourite New York City novels you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2018: Part One

Cover imageI seem to start most of these posts with promises of many treats, or potential treats, on the paperback horizon and May’s no exception with publishers not yet assuming that we’ve put our brains away in preparation for summer reading.

At the top of May’s goodie list for me is Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which appeared on both my books of 2017 list and my Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 wish list. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. It’s a highly ambitious debut but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is a caustic satire which takes a distinctly dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way. Desperate for money, Mary enrolls in The Girlfriend Experiment as Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few. The ensuing shenanigans skewer the contemporary pursuit of the perfect partner in a novel which lives up to its Margaret Atwood puff.

Technology comes in for a bashing in The Chalk Artist which sees Allegra Goodman contrasting the world of gaming with the older more established one of literature. Despite her antipathy to it, Nina prods Collin into a job in her father’s business which designed the game that Cover imageconsumed his teenage years. As Nina struggles to imbue her students with a love of literature, Collin is pulled further into Arkadia with its playground offices and exacting taskmasters. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old games-obsessed Aidan has been given a black box which opens up a virtual reality game to him. The Chalk Artist is an absorbing, all too believable read but I preferred Goodman’s previous novel, The Cook Book Collector, which explores similar thematic territory.

I had a similar reaction to Jennifer Egan’s first historical novel Manhattan Beach to which I had been looking forward very much having enjoyed A Visit from the Goon Squad. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her beloved father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him. Anna is assigned to work in the shipyards during the Second World War but manages to argue, cajole and doggedly train her way onto the all-male diving programme while still trying to find answers to the mystery of her father’s disappearance. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away.

I’m hoping Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl won’t continue the disappointment trend after the excellent The Woman Upstairs. Her new novel looks at female friendship through two women who have been friends since nursery school but whose paths diverge leaving one of them feeling cast aside. ‘Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship. Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship’ say the publishers which sounds right up my street.

I’m ending this selection with Jamie Ford’s Love and Other Consolation Prizes which I’m not at all sure about largely because of the cover which looks somewhat soapy to me but I like the sound of the premise. At the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair Ernest, a half-Chinese boy, is raffled off as a prize and ends up working in a brothel where he falls in love with the daughter of its madam. In 1962, on the eve of the new World’s Fair, Ernest looks back at his past while his daughter attempts to unravel her family’s story. Quite an eye-catching synopsis but it I’m still not convinced by that jacket.

That’s it for the first batch of May paperback delights. A click on any of the first four will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other two should you want to know more. If you missed May’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second batch of paperbacks shortly…

Books to Look Out for in September 2017

Cover imageSeptember’s preview starts with Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone, a book I’ve been hoping to see in translation since MarinaSofia over at Finding Time to Write mentioned it earlier in the year. In it Erpenbeck explores the opening of Germany’s borders to refugees and the effects of their arrival on German society through Richard, an academic who lives in Berlin. The novel is ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality and a beautifully written examination of an ageing man’s quest to find meaning in his life’ according to the publishers. I very much enjoyed Erpenbeck’s The End of Days which told the story of the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly reimagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life.

Not so very far away, Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained-glass Window begins in 1989 when a soprano at the Lviv opera is shot dead while leading her fellow citizens in a protest against Soviet power. She leaves an eleven-year-old daughter who tells the story of their family both before and after the shooting. ‘Just like their home city of Lviv, which stands at the crossroads of nations and cultures, the women in this family have had turbulent lives, scarred by war and political turmoil, but also by their own inability to show each other their feelings. Lyrically told, this is the story of a young girl’s emotional, sexual, artistic and political awakening’ say the publishers. This is such an interesting period in that part of the world, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

Since its longlisting for this year’s Man Booker the publication of my next choice has been brought forward to August but I can’t bring myself to let it go unmentioned. In Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a young woman realises her dream of studying in America but can’t stop worrying about her twin siblings: the headstrong Aneeka in London, and Parvaiz who seems intent on following the same path as his jihadist father. Then the son of a powerful British Muslim politician enters the sisters’ lives: ‘Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this Cover imagesearing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love? A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide’ say the publishers a little melodramatically. It’s been quite some time since Shamsie’s last novel, A God in Every Stone, and I’m sure that the Man Booker longlisting will only have added to the anticipation for this one, published tomorrow.

Which can also be said about Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl. There was a bit of a literary stir back in 2013, the year Messud’s The Woman Upstairs was published in the UK, when an interviewer asked her why her narrator was so unlikeable. Messud gave a somewhat waspish response – and who can blame her? How tedious fiction would be if every character was nice. Her new novel looks at female friendship through two women who have been friends since nursery school but whose paths diverge leaving one of them feeling cast aside. ‘Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship. Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship’ say the publishers which sounds right up my street.

I’m not so sure about Estep Nagy’s We Shall Not Sleep, a debut set in the summer of 1964. The Quicks and the Hillsingers have shared a small Maine island for generations but despite two intermarriages the families have little to do with each other. This year things look set to change. ‘We Shall Not All Sleep is a richly told story of American class, family, and manipulation–a compelling portrait of a unique and privileged WASP stronghold on the brink of dissolution’ according to the publishers. I like the sound of that but not so much the mention of violent games and sadistic older brothers which appears further on in the very detailed blurb.

Cover imageMy last choice for September is set in a bleak, hungry and frozen London in January 1947. Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress tells the story of Joan whose actor husband, the great Charlie Grice, has died. Persuaded against her will to attend a benefit performance of Charlie’s last play, Joan is shocked to see her husband’s eyes staring back at her from his understudy’s face. Grief-stricken, she seeks comfort with the young actor but discovers a dreadful secret. Anyone who’s read McGrath’s previous fiction will be expecting more than a touch of the gothic and it sounds as if they won’t be disappointed.

That’s it for September titles. A little thin this year, given that it’s the beginning of the run up to Christmas in the publishing year but I’m sure October will be jam-packed with goodies. Paperbacks soon…