Tag Archives: Lauren Groff

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2019: Part Two

Cover imageBack from Genoa – of which more on Wednesday –  with the second batch of May paperbacks starting with the only one I’ve read. Lena Andersson’s Acts of Infidelity features the same sharply observed protagonist as her witty novella, Wilful Disregard, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago. Once again Ester is in the grips of monomania, this time for Olof who is performing in her play, Threesome, about a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who becomes involved with another woman. Given the novel’s title, it doesn’t take much to work out how things play between Ester and Olof. Andersson shows no mercy in skewering Ester’s deluded conviction that Olof is as besotted with her as she is with him despite his obvious indifference which may sound like a rerun of Wilful Disregard but its more sombre tone makes Act of Infidelity sadly credible.

I suspect Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love will share that tone. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution just outside Stockholm where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but Stridsberg’s book has been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends won both prizes and accolades when it was published in 2017. Her second, Normal People, has met with a similar response. It follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly. That synopsis remindsCover image me a little of Belinda McKeon’s wonderful Tender setting the bar very high for me.

In Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion a young student is taken up by a prominent feminist and finds herself treading a very different path from the one she’d expected to travel. ‘Expansive and wise, compassionate and witty, The Female Persuasion is about the spark we all believe is flickering inside us, waiting to be seen and fanned by the right person at the right time, and the desire within all of us to be pulled into the light’ according to the publishers. I’ve long been a fan of Wolitzer’s novels, reviewing The Interestings here way back in 2013.

I could have said the same about William Boyd’s work had it not been for a string of thrillers which failed to hit the mark for me. His last novel, Sweet Caress, saw a return to form that I hope will continue in Love is Blind. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, it follows Brodie Mancour from Edinburgh to Paris where he conceives an obsessive passion for a Russian soprano with dangerous consequences. ‘At once an intimate portrait of one man’s life and an expansive exploration of the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind is a masterly new novel from one of Britain’s best-loved storytellers’ say the publishers which makes me hopeful.

I’m finishing May’s paperback preview with two short story collections the first of which, Lauren Groff’s Florida, I’ve picked not because, as the publishers trumpet, it was one of Barack Obama’s books of 2018, although it has to be said that the man has excellent literary taste, but because Rebecca over at Bookish Beck rated it her favourite fiction of the same year. ‘In these vigorous stories, Lauren Groff brings her electric storytelling to a world in which storms, snakes and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats are of a human, emotional and psychological nature’ according to the blurb. Sounds great.

Cover imageCatherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval which must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, raising stratospheric expectations. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for May. A click on Acts of Infidelity will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other six titles. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks, it’s here. The month’s new titles are here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2016

Cover imageI’ll start July’s paperback selection with my favourite of the three I’ve already read. Set in Morocco, Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty takes us on a nail-biting journey wondering what our resourceful protagonist will come up with next. Exhausted after her long sleepless flight and preoccupied by problems at home, she finds herself in a Kafkaesque nightmare with no ID, credit cards cancelled and no cash after her backpack is snatched. When, after a fretful night, the chief of police hands her a black backpack she accepts it knowing that it’s not hers, nor is the passport or the credit cards she finds in it, but seeing a way out of her predicament. What follows is a somewhat improbable but thoroughly entertaining sequence of events as our nameless protagonist slides deeper and deeper into a quagmire of lies.

Vida’s writing was new to me but I’ve been reading Andrew Miller’s novels since the publication of his excellent debut, Ingenious Pain. He’s never quite matched that for me but it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to whatever he comes up with next. The Crossing opens with a young man and woman repairing a boat, both members of their university sailing club. They’re not a couple but Tim has it in the back of his mind that he’ll sleep with Maud before too long. Suddenly, Maud flips off the boat and lands on her head – for one long moment it seems she’s dead – then she gets up and walks away. Tim somehow feels responsible following her home and later conceiving a passion for her. Written in short, crisp sentences from which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, The Crossing feels very different from any of Miller’s previous novels. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.Cover image

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, is also about a marriage but not just any old run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true. The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently idyllic relationship seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Groff’s baggy, extravagant, almost baroque writing is the antithesis of the spare elegance I so admire in the likes of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. Not an unalloyed joy – it’s far too long – but it’s an absorbing, intriguing novel.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse looks irresistible: its setting, subject and jacket tick all the boxes for me. Paul Dukach is in line to take over one of the last independent publishing houses in New York and is being shown the ropes, from navigating the choppy waters of the Frankfurt book fair to the wooing of authors renowned for their delicate egos. Paul has become obsessed with Ida Perkins, a star of literary New York, whose lover and longtime publisher is Paul’s boss’s biggest rival. ‘Enriched by juicy details only a quintessential insider could know, written with both satiric sharpness and sensitivity, Muse is a love letter to the people who write, sell – and, above all, read – the books that shape our lives’ says the publisher. See what I mean by irresistible…

Cover imageEnding on a very different note, Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing takes us to rural East Prussia in January 1945 where the wealthy von Globigs have hidden themselves away from the horrors taking place on their doorstep. When they take in a stranger it seems that they will finally have to face the consequences of the war. ‘Profoundly evocative of the period, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end’ says the publisher. The novel is translated by Anthea Bell which makes it well worth a look for me.

That’s it for July. As ever, if you’d like to know more a click on a title will take you to my review for the novels I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I haven’t. if you’d like to catch up with the hardback selections they’re here and here.

Fates and Furies: A much tastier curate’s egg

Cover imageI’m not a natural Lauren Groff fan. The writing I most admire is the pared back prose of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern – Groff’s is baggy, extravagant, almost baroque at times, yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. I read The Monsters of Templeton when working on a magazine, not really expecting to enjoy it but needing to check out whether it was worth reviewing or not, and found myself transfixed. Fates and Furies is the portrait of a marriage and if you’ve read Groff before you’ll know that this isn’t just any run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true, and what a dull novel it would be if it was.

Fates and Furies begins with the glittering image of Lotto and Mathilde, freshly – and secretly – married at twenty-two then switches to Lotto’s story. He’s the son of the beautiful Antoinette and Gawain, tall, hirsute and lonely but rich on bottling Floridian water. Gawain dies young, leaving a grief-stricken Lotto to go off the rails with the local riff-raff – on whom he will never quite turn his back – before being sent off to boarding school. College brings hopes of acting – his aura of specialness and generosity of spirit drawing women irresistibly to him. At his final performance as Hamlet he and Mathilde meet in the most dramatic of circumstances, marrying a mere two weeks later. Their life together unfolds in a series of parties. Lotto’s acting career flounders but another more brilliant future lies ahead. Just over half-way through the novel the perspective shifts to the seemingly unknowable Mathilde whose story is quite different from what we have been led to believe. A childhood tragedy has left her bundled up like a parcel, passed from one distant relative to another, left to find her own surprising way. Lotto’s and her apparent coup de foudre may not be quite what it seems. The smile she always takes care to wear hides something much more complex and more interesting.

The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently perfect marriage seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Shakespearian and fairytale elements sit well in the context of Lotto’s work not to mention the title with its nod to Greek mythology. There’s a healthy seam of feminism running through the book – ‘Somehow, despite her politics and smarts, she had become a wife, and wives, as we all know, are invisible’ – and Mathilde’s character is much the more satisfying of the two. It’s also about appearances and reality: there’s a striking image of a passerby who glances into a house and sees the Satterwhite family singing at Christmas in the glow of a fire ‘the very idea of what happiness should look like’ when the opposite is true. There’s a great deal to admire but a few irritations, too: the bracketed interpolations at first seem witty but eventually pall and at nearly four hundred pages, it needs an editorial trim. That said it’s an absorbing, intriguing and satisfyingly complex novel: the self-consciously iconoclastic English teacher’s discussion of drama and comedy at Lotto’s school fits it well. Another curate’s egg, then, but a much tastier one than Up Against the Night.

Books to Look Out For in September 2015: Part 2

Cover imageMy second selection for September seems to be made up almost entirely of books by American novelists. No particular reason, it just turned out that way. No starry names either but a couple of the authors already have several excellent novels to their credit so I hope they’ve come up with the goods this time, too.

Anyone who enjoyed Patrick Dewitt’s brilliant Western The Sisters Brothers may well execute a little jig at the prospect of a new novel from him,  even if the title is a little perplexing. Undermajordomo Minor is about Lucien Minor, assistant to the eponymous majordomo of Baron Von Aux’s castle where he meets the beautiful Klara, sadly already spoken for. It’s ‘a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behaviour is laid bare for our hero to observe’, ‘an adventure story, and a mystery, and a searing portrayal of rural Alpine bad behaviour with a brandy tart, but above all it is a love story’ which sounds absolutely marvelous.

I thoroughly enjoyed both The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia so I’m looking forward to Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies very much. It tells the story of a marriage and creative partnership over a period of twenty-four years. Lotto and Mathilde are a glittering, enviable couple, apparently as happy ten years since their wedding as they were on the day itself but things may not be quite what they seem – we’re promised ‘stunning revelations and multiple threads, in prose that is vibrantly alive and original.’ Fingers crossed.

Already longlisted for the Man Booker, American literary agent Bill Clegg’s first novel, Did You Cover imageEver Have a Family, is published in the UK in September and it looks very enticing. June Reid is the only survivor of a house explosion that takes place the morning of her daughter’s wedding. She takes off from her small Connecticut town in the hope of escaping her neighbours and her grief, holing up in a motel on the other side of the country. ‘The novel is a gathering of voices, and each testimony has a new revelation about what led to the catastrophe… everyone touched by the tragedy finds themselves caught in the undertow, as their secret histories finally come to light.’ says the publisher, all of which sounds just the ticket for an absorbing read, if a little wordy.

Appropriately enough, my final September choice is Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans, a set of linked short stories, a form to which I’ve become rather partial. This collection looks at the immigrant experience in America through the eyes of Tara, a single Indian woman in her mid-thirties who travels to the States to look after her teenage niece. It tells the stories of eleven people and spans the entire country with Tara as the common thread. Inevitably, the publishers compare it to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, setting the bar high, but they’re also Lahiri’s publishers so perhaps the comparison is accurate, for once.

Cover imageAnd one last title – this time by an Italian – just to alert the many fans out there, as if they don’t already know – Elena Ferrante’s long awaited The Story of the Lost Child is published in September. I’ve never quite got into the Ferrante fever which seized Twitter and hasn’t yet let go but I’m delighted that the small but perfectly formed Europa publishers have met with such success.

That’s it for September – as ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to check out my first batch of September titles here they are, and if you want to catch up with August the hardbacks are here and the paperbacks are here.