Anxious People by Fredrik Backman: Fredrik Backman’s gift for portraying the nuances of humanity is well known to his many loyal fans. With Anxious People, Backman once again captures readers’ hearts and imaginations. An armed, masked robber attempts to hold up a bank in a Swedish city. But as the thief approaches, the apathetic young teller is unmoved. It’s a cashless bank, the teller says. Doesn’t the would-be robber know that? Well, no. The robber doesn’t. As police arrive, the robber rushes into the street, through the nearest open door, up a set of stairs and into an apartment’s open house. When the potential buyers and real estate agent see the thief, they assume they’re being held hostage. Backman describes these events with a light touch, making clear early on that, though there’s a crime at the heart of this story, his novel is much more than this series of events. Father and son police officers Jim and Jack try to understand how a bank robber slipped, unnoticed, from an apartment full of people. As the officers interrogate the witnesses, Backman reveals glimpses of each character’s past. Anxious People could reasonably be called a mystery, but it’s also a deeply funny and warm examination of how individual experiences can bring a random group of people together. Backman reveals each character’s many imperfections with tremendous empathy, reminding us that people are always more than the sum of their flaws.
Monogamy by Sue Miller: Any story told quickly, without the chill or warmth of accumulated details, becomes a cliche. For example: After 30 or so years of a relatively happy marriage, a woman wakes to find her husband dead beside her. Her grief is nearly unbearable until, at his memorial, she discovers he had been having an affair. She becomes angry. What then? We’ve heard this tale a couple of times, and that is one way to summarize the story Sue Miller tells in her 11th novel, Monogamy. The best approach to this unbelievably good novel, however, is to avoid summary altogether and simply urge readers to read–and reread–the book itself. Here is a taste of what a reader will find: The long marriage of Annie and Graham is a second marriage for both. Each has a past that captured and shaped them. Graham, who co-owns a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a passionate, needy, generous man who clasps his past–his ex-wife, for example–more closely than Annie does hers. It’s not irrelevant that Annie, a thoughtful person and a good-not-great photographer, views the world through her own lens and keeps any boisterous turbulence at a bit of a distance. Annie and Graham really do love one another. But the past is always up for reevaluation. So is our understanding of ourselves and others. Miller is excellent at conveying and illuminating the inner lives of her characters, and she remains one of the best writers at depicting the day-to-day normality of desire. Events occur in this novel–normal sorts of things–and Miller’s attention, her descriptions and the tempo at which she reveals them help us feel these events truly and deeply. She has found in Monogamy probably the best expression of her longtime interest in sociograms, an exercise to demonstrate how lives intersect and influence each other. Among the relationships of the characters in Monogamy, there are reverberations upon reverberations. How great is Monogamy? If this is not Miller’s best novel, it is surely among her very best. One measure of that is how the experience of it deepens with each reading.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: “It is my belief,” writes Piranesi, the protagonist of Susanna Clarke’s new novel of the same name, “that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.” Clarke’s first novel since 2004’s wildly successful and critically acclaimed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Piranesi centers on a strange, haunting world and features a main character whose earnest goodwill is piercingly endearing. The House, composed of hundreds of huge rooms filled with statues and wild birds and containing an ocean’s four tides, is so vast it may as well be infinite. Piranesi spends his days fishing, drying seaweed to burn for warmth, tracking the tides and cataloging the features of each room of the House in his journals. Twice a week, he meets with the Other, the only living person Piranesi has ever known. The Other is obsess with finding and “freeing the Great and Secret Knowledge from whatever holds it captive in the World and to transfer it to ourselves,” and the guileless and devoted Piranesi has been his cheerful collaborator. But just as Piranesi begins to lose faith in the Knowledge, a discovery leads him to question his own past. From this point, the novel is almost impossible to put down. The reader reflexively mirrors Piranesi in his quest to interpret the clues revealed to him by his beloved World. Stripping this mystery back layer by layer is a magical way to spend an afternoon, reading narrative motifs like runes and studying Piranesi’s journals as if they are the religious texts they resemble. Piranesi hits many of the same pleasure points as Jonathan Strange–Clarke’s dazzling feats of world building, for one. But at one-third as many pages, Piranesi is more allegorical than epic in scope. With their neoclassical verve, certain passages recall ancient philosophy, but readers may also see connections between Piranesi’s account and the unique isolation of a confined life–whether as a result of a mandatory lockdown during a global pandemic, or perhaps due to the limitations caused by a chronic illness, such as Clarke’s own chronic fatigue syndrome. Lavishly descriptive, charming, heartbreaking and imbued with a magic that will be familiar to Clarke’s devoted readers, Piranesi will satisfy lovers of Jonathan Strange and win her many new fans.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: Don’t be deceived by the brevity of Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, What Are You Going Through. Like its National Book Award-winning predecessor, The Friend, this exquisite portrait of female friendship, aging and loss packs more insight into its barely 200 pages than many serious novels twice that length. The novel’s unnamed narrator is a writer whose middle-aged friend, dying of cancer (“fatal,” as she prefers to say instead of “terminal”), asks her to serve as a companion in the New England rental house where she plans to end her life with a “euthanasia drug”–even as she confesses that “you weren’t my first choice” for this challenging assignment. Over the course of the succeeding weeks, with a “new intimacy that made secrets and lies intolerable,” and that at various moments is touching, profound and even wryly humorous, the women bond over shared stories of their lives, old movies, music and fairy tales, in something the narrator’s ex-partner observes “does sound a little like a sitcom. Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia.” Borrowing the opening line of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier–“This is the saddest story I have ever heard”–Nunez confronts the reality of death without succumbing to despair. Whether she’s summarizing the improbable plot of a serial killer potboiler or recounting a conversation between the narrator and a “once beautiful woman” at the gym, she’s an economical, graceful storyteller. She also touches lightly but provocatively on subjects like climate change, the #MeToo movement and the malign influence of Fox News on one elderly woman’s psyche, then eases her story along almost before we realize it. Sooner than she would like, the narrator faces the reality that what she’s come to think of as a “fairy tale” will end, and that, paradoxically, “the saddest time that has also been one of the happiest times in my life will pass. And I’ll be alone.” It’s a good bet that most readers will share that same wistful feeling when they reach the novel’s final page.