TERRY GROSS, HOST:
July is just about over, but if you're still looking for that ideal novel to read on your vacation, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has two recommendations that she says are midsummer dreams.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The novel I've been recommending this summer to anyone, female or male, who is looking for the trifecta - a good story that's beautifully written with a tone that's hilarious and humane - is Maggie Shipstead's debut novel of last summer called "Seating Arrangements." I was about to go all old school and excitedly add that "Seating Arrangements" is now out in paperback, except since more and more readers are instantly downloading new books at a discount, paperbacks are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
The main character in "Seating Arrangements" is concerned that he and his pedigreed kind are becoming irrelevant too. Winn Van Meter is a WASP. He approves of discretion, shorts with little whales on them, and Bloody Marys - lots and lots of Bloodies, as they're called.
"Seating Arrangements" takes place on a Nantucket-like island where the Van Meter family is hosting a wedding for their daughter Daphne, who's hugely pregnant. This is the 21st century, after all. Winn, the father of the bride, shambles around in a polite funk because he's been quietly shunned by the island's exclusive golf club and because his house has been invaded by the bridal party, who deposit make-up and bikini tops everywhere. One of the more flirtatious bridesmaids is making Winn cranky in a sexual way. She has a name that only a fellow WASP could find arousing. She's called Agatha.
Author Maggie Shipstead mocks the pretentions of this tightly enclosed world, even as she thoroughly and compassionately inhabits it. She's Edith Wharton with a millennial generation edge. And while the society of "Seating Arrangements" may be select, Shipstead's range as a writer is democratic. She roams from a slapstick subplot starring an escaped lobster, to sublime reflections on marriage and death.
Here's Winn's sister-in-law meditating on the middle-aged consolations of her current relationship with a live-in lover named Cooper: quiet dinners out, long weeks apart when he was off sailing, compatible taste in TV and movies, mutual tolerance of each other's friends, agreement that they would never marry. Even if things fell apart, she would draft another companion from the bush leagues of washed-up lovers, and they would wait out the violet hour together.
I honestly may reread "Seating Arrangements" this summer to savor Shipstead's droll language anew. "Seating Arrangements" won the L.A. Times Book Prize for Best First Fiction, and the good news is Shipstead has a second novel coming out in 2014. I confess, when I first saw the title "Seating Arrangements," I assumed it was a chick lit bauble.
The title of Jessica Lott's debut novel doesn't serve it well, either. It's called "The Rest of Us." But if Lott's title is unmemorable, her opening chapter is etched in acid. Terry is a photographer's assistant in her late 30s who's been stranded for years in that no-man's land between college and the next stage of adult life.
When she was a college undergrad, Terry had an affair with a famous visiting poet named Rudolf Rhinehart, and he remains the love of her life. On the very first page of "The Rest of Us," Terry has just stumbled upon Rhinehart's New York Times obituary. By the way, in that imagined obituary, Lott demonstrates a wicked gift for mimicking the meaningless pronouncements of hoity-toity culture criticism.
The obit reads, in part: A profile on Mr. Rhinehart for The New York Times Magazine in 1999 attributed the bestseller status of his acclaimed poetry collection "Midnight, Spring" to its "finding portals of transcendence in the unceasing repetition of our daily lives." That's just the beginning of the fun, because on page seven of the first chapter, a depressed Terry is wandering around Bloomingdale's when she spots none other than Rhinehart standing in front of the Estee Lauder counter, buying a gift for his wife.
It turns out the obit in the Times was a mistake. It also turns out that Rhinehart's current marriage is something of a mistake, too. In the character of Terry, Lott nails that sense of being stalled, of being an adjunct in life, when everybody else seems to be a fully inducted player. "The Rest of Us" itself stalls a bit towards the end, although Lott executes some unexpected riffs on the student-professor relationship plot.
Both Shipstead and Lott, first-time novelists though they may be, have arrived.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Seating Arrangements" by Maggie Shipstead and "The Rest of Us" by Jessica Lott. You can read an excerpt of each book on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by clarinetist Darryl Harper, who chairs the music department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. This is FRESH AIR.
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