A young boy seeks justice. A young woman wants to stay alive. A friendship is tested. The child of a commune comes of age. A solitary man gives himself over to love. These are the bare actions underpinning the novels that I'm suggesting for book clubs this year. Some are first novels; others the work of well-known writers. Some might touch your heart; others might challenge the way you think. At least one will make you laugh — and a couple might make you cry. They are all good reads. And they are, above all, books you'll want to talk about with your friends.
Ever since I saw Tallulah Bankhead looking like her glamorous self while lost at sea in the 1944 film Lifeboat, I've been a sucker for survival stories. And this book by Charlotte Rogan is a satisfying one. Most of the action takes place aboard a lifeboat after a luxury ship quite like the Titanic goes down at sea. Grace Winter, a young woman who is on trial for an unspecified crime that occurred aboard the lifeboat, is writing down her version of the story for her lawyer. In her narrative, one of the ship's sailors takes control of the small vessel and enforces his own brand of brutal but effective leadership. Factions for and against him quickly develop.
Gradually we come to understand that Grace is quite beautiful and more than a little manipulative. And since the story is told completely from her point of view, it's never quite clear whether she is telling the whole truth. Villains and heroes, good and bad get twisted out of shape as the survivors fight with each other and against the looming threat of death. Rogan cleverly sets up a plot that questions whether right and wrong are values that can be tossed overboard like so much ballast when one's life is at stake. In the end she leaves much to the reader's imagination, allowing us to make the final judgment on what really happened.
The Round House
In this novel, Louise Erdrich returns to familiar territory: North Dakota's Ojibwe reservation. Geraldine Coutts, who works in the tribal enrollment office, has been brutally raped. A once vibrant woman, she descends into a deep depression, barely speaking to her family and revealing nothing about the attack to the police. Geraldine's 13-year-old son, Joe, begins working with his father, Bazil, a tribal judge, to investigate the crime. But Joe quickly becomes disillusioned with the limitations of justice on the reservation and recruits his closest friends to help him track down his mother's attacker.
The Round House, which won this year's National Book Award for fiction, combines a crime novel with a coming-of-age saga that is both touching and heartbreaking. Joe and his friends roam the reservation in a pack, pursuing the usual exploits of adolescence — hanging out, sneaking beers, falling in love. Their investigation into the rape sometimes leads them down the wrong path, but as Joe gets closer to the truth, he decides that the only way to get justice is to take things into his own hands. Erdrich is that rare writer who can shed light on a complex social issue and, at the same time, weave a story peopled with characters you care about, and powered by a plot that keeps you reading expectantly until the bitter end.
In Arcadia, Lauren Groff imagines life in a '60s commune in upstate New York through the eyes of a young boy named Bit, the first child born into the commune. Though founded on utopian ideals, Arcadia is headed by a charming but egotistical leader who often clashes with his more pragmatic followers. The adults in the commune are too preoccupied to give their children the attention they need, so Bit and his friends grow up with few rules and lots of freedom. In adolescence, the kids are easily tempted by the drugs and sex that surround them. When the commune breaks up, they have to learn to live in a very different world. The story takes Bit well into adulthood, when he reaches an understanding of what was lost, and gained, in Arcadia.
Groff based the commune in Arcadia on two real utopian communities. Through fiction she wanted to explore the forces that bring people together in these idealistic ventures, and also tear the communities apart. In Bit, she created the perfect guide into this world. Sweet, wise and loved by all, he roams the commune absorbing everything: the intense beauty of his natural surroundings; the bitter rivalries that erupt among the adults; the wildness and vulnerability of his peers. By the end of the book, which is set in the near future, Bit is able to see the commune for what it was: a tragically flawed experiment that made him who he is.
The ethnically diverse neighborhood of North West London ("NW"), where Zadie Smith grew up, is the setting for her latest novel. Smith first introduced readers to this corner of world in her novel White Teeth; NW is a more complex look at where the inhabitants of that world have landed. The two male characters in the story don't even know each other, but their paths intersect briefly and violently. The two women have been lifelong friends, but in adulthood the friendship is strained. Natalie seems to have it all — a husband and two children, a successful career and big house, plenty of money. But Leah is floundering, paralyzed by self-doubt. Smith uses these intertwining lives to explore how four people who come from similar circumstances can end up in such different places.
Smith is a risk taker, and in NW she seems to be experimenting with the very idea of the novel. The book is broken into four sections, each focusing on a different character, each written in a completely different style. Some sections work better than others. The longest and most successful, which focuses on Natalie, is told in 185 segments, some as brief as a sentence, some the length of a very short story. NW got mixed reviews when it was released. And it is a flawed novel, but so are a lot of books. Smith's flaws, at the very least, are interesting. And when it does work, NW is both insightful and entertaining.
William Talmadge is the titular orchardist. For most of 40 years he has lived alone, tending the orchard where he grew up with his mother and sister. His mother died when he was still very young, and his sister disappeared as a young woman — a loss Talmadge has never quite recovered from. And it may be that secret pain that prompts him to take care of two pregnant teenagers who wander onto his property looking for food. They're running away from a brothel run by a brutal drug addict who traffics in young girls. Talmadge's decision to shelter the girls changes his life forever, exposing him to both the pain and quiet joy of love.
Amanda Coplin must be a very old soul. How else to explain a 31-year-old woman of the 21st century who can so fully capture in words the look and feel of the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century? Coplin immerses her readers in a world so different from our own that it almost seems like you've traveled back in time when you enter it. She lets you feel the stillness of the orchard that both isolates Talmadge and nourishes him. And when that stillness is broken by the messiness of lives that have been ruined by violence, she makes you understand why Talmadge would go to great and ultimately disastrous lengths to try to save one of those ravaged lives.