Fiction Picks for Your Mental GetawayThere are beach books full of sun and cotton candy and beach books dappled with shadow and sardonic humor. The very different beach books Maureen Corrigan recommends all have one thing in common: They carry a reader far beyond the familiar.
There are beach books full of sun and cotton candy and beach books dappled with shadow and sardonic humor. The very different beach books I'm about to recommend, however, all have one thing in common: They carry a reader far beyond the familiar. So, even if you can't afford a beach vacation in this summer of recession and sky-high gas prices, you can still revel in these mental getaways.
Lady of the Snakes, by Rachel Pastan, hardcover, 320 pages
Rachel Pastan's novel, Lady of the Snakes, came out in February, but I've been saving it, because I had a hunch that it would be my idea of the perfect summer book — and was I ever right. Lady of the Snakes is a literary mystery crossed with a funny, feminist commentary on marriage — think A.S. Byatt linking arms in sisterhood with chick-lit champs Susan Isaacs and Jennifer Weiner.
I was hooked from the opening scene, which finds Pastan's heroine, Jane Levitsky, a hotshot graduate student in Russian literature, in the midst of 20 gruesome hours of labor. Finally, in a delivery room smelling of "ocean and rust," she gives birth to a daughter. When a nurse places the newborn in Jane's arms, her first thought is that "the bundle was so light it seemed to weigh less than the completed chapters of her dissertation."
Jane is an expert on the novels of the (fictitious) 19th century Russian writer and cad, Grigory Karkov, and also on the diaries of his tormented wife, Masha. As the story unfolds, Jane struggles with the demands of being on both the mommy track and the tenure track, as well as with the sense that her seemingly emancipated life has some queasy similarities to Masha's wifely serfdom. Crack open Lady of the Snakes on the beach, and I predict your funny bone and brain will be exercised while your bathing suit stays dry.
Speaking of dry, if you like dry British humor mixed with sinister eccentricity, you might want to pick up The Sister, a clever debut novel written by the wonderfully named Poppy Adams. The Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-type story concerns two English sisters who haven't seen each other in nearly 50 years.
The sisters reunite in the crumbling family mansion, and gradually the reader learns about the fatal jealousies that have kept them apart for so long. But, readers beware: "unreliable" might well be the most generous word that can be applied to the first-person narrator of this tale. You can time your ocean dips to the startling revelations in The Sisters, which occur, agreeably, every 50 pages or so.
The People on Privilege Hill, by Jane Gardam, paperback, 256 pages
A few balmy nights ago, at an outdoor party filled with English professors, I mentioned to a small group that I had belatedly discovered the extraordinary British writer Jane Gardam. Four out of my five colleagues looked blank; the fifth, our host, ran into his house and came out with two early Gardam novels that he insisted I take home and read immediately!
I think that mixed reaction typifies Gardam familiarity in this country: Since a lot of her books are hard to find here, even many voracious readers don't know her. So I'm declaring Jane Gardam my late-blooming discovery of the summer. In July, Europa Editions is publishing her short-story collection, The People on Privilege Hill, which is a stylistic hodgepodge of wit and weirdness, compassion and even a few examples of the classic supernatural tale.
The title story features Sir Edward Feathers, "Old Filth," who's a recurring character. My Gardam-loving friends assure me that her 2004 novel, Old Filth, is wonderful beyond description and that her 1991 epistolary novel, The Queen of the Tambourine, is even better. I plan to plant myself in the sand in August and find out if they're right.
My final recommendation may not sound so summery, but constant sunshine grows tiresome. In his just-published, ethereal novel Exiles, Ron Hansen returns to the subject that gained him literary recognition with his 1991 novel, Mariette in Ecstasy: the mysteries of religious faith.
Exiles tells the intertwined story of the Victorian poet Gerard Manly Hopkins and the sea tragedy that inspired Hopkins' famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. The novel takes off from some biographical facts: When Hopkins decided to become a Jesuit priest, he vowed to give up writing poetry, but he broke that vow in 1875 upon reading accounts of the sinking of the steamship Deutschland off the coast of England.
Among the dead were five German nuns. Hopkins' poem and Hansen's novel both consider the question of why bad things happen to good people — maybe not the ideal summer topic, but an eternally relevant one. If you're lucky enough to find yourself sitting by an ocean this summer, Hansen's elegiac novel will prompt you to stare at the waves and, to paraphrase another great Victorian poet, Emily Dickinson, consider for yourself, "the secrets [the sea] abides."