It feels so good to root for the golden-hearted guy. To imagine that in a crisis you'd be just like Harry Potter — noble, self-sacrificing, flaunting rules only in the service of Good. But most of us also harbor secret, selfish thoughts we're certain Mother Teresa never had. Those failings are what make the morally flawed heroes of these books ring uncomfortably true. And if we, the readers, refuse to empathize with these very human characters, does that make us nobler than they, or merely self-delusional?
In this intense, sensual, intricately written book, Minna Losk is a Jewish mail-order bride transported from Odessa to bleak 19th-century South Dakota. To secure her ticket, Minna has passed tests of industriousness and kindness. But she is 16 and finds herself married to a much older and strictly Orthodox farmer whose son is the only adolescent male for a good 100 miles. They all live together in a one-room sod hut with barely any food. It's easy to condemn Minna for lusting after her stepson and gobbling down bacon behind her husband's back, but it's also easy to imagine changing opinions after one South Dakotan winter in a freezing shack.
Unlike Moby Dick's Captain Ahab, Rhode Island fisherman Dick Pierce knows full well he's being a jerk. But still he stops at nothing in his quest to finish building Spartina, the 50-foot fishing boat that his wife calls "a black hole." Spartina has already cost Dick a second mortgage, but in the course of his obsession he gets sucked into clam poaching, drug running and a disorienting affair with the college-educated girl next door. For Dick, Spartina is more than just a boat or a way to reverse his once-prominent family's decline: it is his way of controlling his destiny and defining his place. With so much at stake, who wouldn't be willing to risk it all?
"Everyone knows in America, girls have no morals. How can you expect the men to be better?" So concludes Lan, one of The Love Wife's multiple narrators, about her Chinese-American boss, Carnegie Wong, when he unwittingly signals his desire for her. Lan — sent from China to nanny the children Carnegie shares with his Caucasian wife, Blondie Bailey — wreaks havoc on the delicate balancing act that is the Wong-Bailey's mixed-race, angst-filled household. Lan, for her part, takes up what she views as American immorality with the same alacrity she shows for ruffled blouses and stock market tips. But can we damn Carnegie, whose Blondie-hating mother sent Lan into his home, for confusing infidelity with filial piety? Can we blame uneducated Lan, thrust into a world of wealth she has never before seen, for scrabbling for her share of it? It's a stylish, funny yet dark tale.
Feel-good books? Not at all. Read these books if you dare to confront these character's flaws, so masterfully drawn that they might remind you a bit too much of yourself. These books will ruffle your feathers. But they will also expand your world.