It’s the 1960s, 19-year-old university student Paul is home on summer holiday. Bored and fed up of by his parents’ suburban conventionality Paul reluctantly goes along when his mum suggests he joins the tennis club to meet a ‘Caroline’. Instead, he meets Susan Macleod, 48-year-old unhappily married mum of two. A beautiful and harrowing love story ensues, one that will dominate the rest of Paul’s life. Julian Barnes fans will want to read The Only Story, if I were new to Barnes, though, I’m not sure this is where I would start.
Our unnamed narrator, the second wife of a successful Wall Street bond trader, is consumed with jealously for the first wife – ‘she’ – in this short novel, where the classic direction of jealousy is reversed. She is composed, blonde, tall and ‘lovely’, a talented musician with two exceptionally bright kids. ‘I’ is everything she’s not. A stirring portrayal of jealousy, emotional neglect and obsession, easily read in one sitting.
‘The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.’ The chilling opening line of this hugely hyped thriller about a killer nanny leaves you in no doubt about its horrific ending. And this horrible premise certainly doesn’t make for an easy read. Touted as the next Gone Girl, the first of Leila Slimani’s novels to be translated into English and winner of the prestigious French literary prize, The Prix Goncourt, does Lullaby (American title – The Perfect Nanny) deserve the hype?
Some books just scream out for sequels. None more so than Henry James’s 19th century classic The Portrait of Lady which ends with heroine Isabel Archer facing the choice between going back to her adulterous, deceiving husband or scandalising society by leaving him. Brave is the author who picks up James’s pen and continues his masterpiece, but John Banville does it and, somehow, manages to pull it off.
The teenage Pearl and her artistic mother Mia move into a rented house owned by a wealthy family in a smarter area of the same Ohio neighbourhood. The lives of both families become entwined in healthy and not‐so‐healthy ways in a deceptively simple tale about motherhood, belonging, responsibility, and standing up for what you believe in.
His debut novel took Matthew Thomas a decade to write. Was it worth the ten-year slog? In my opinion, yes. Thomas has simultaneously crafted an intimate story of an ordinary family and an epic of post-war America. Born in 1941, the product of a stormy Irish Catholic working-class upbringing in Queens, New York, Eileen Tumulty craves respectability. Coming of age in the early sixties, she meets and marries a young scientist named Edmund Leary. But while Eileen is deeply aspirational for her family, the quiet, unassuming Ed refuses to give up his teaching for a better-paid job. Eileen dreams of a different life: a better job, a bigger house, more respectability.
The story behind this short John Steinbeck World War II novel is as fascinating as the book itself. Steinbeck, a world famous author by the start of the war, was deeply concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe. He’d noticed the Fascists’ clever use of propaganda and urged the precursor to the CIA, for whom he worked, to create their own. In 1941, Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down, which is largely based on conversations with people who’d fled their occupied countries. The book would become one of the most read underground novels of the war, with thousands of copies printed clandestinely in France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. Judging by its success, it must have played a role in mobilising resistance and keeping up morale.
Hot on the heals of a successful TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale comes a Netfilx adaptation of Alias Grace, another of Atwood’s best-selling novels. I’d take any excuse to re-read this excellent book, which is still as good today as it was in 1996. It’s based on the true story of Canadian domestic servant Grace Marks who in 1843, at the age of 16, was convicted of murdering her employer Mr Kinnear and fellow housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Atwood’s interest in the case go beyond the murder, of course, and into the dark depths of women’s, particularly poor women’s, standing in society; the prejudices held against them, the sexual abuse and innuendo, the back-street abortions and the assumption that they are all liars. An absolutely riveting read.
Our narrator, François Seurel, is the bookish son of a schoolmaster, residing in a provincial French village in the 1890s. Passive and impressionable, he yearns for adventure, but will never be the architect of his own life. When the charismatic adventurer, Augustin Meaulnes, comes to board at his home, Seurel’s life is changed irrevocably. A French classic, often described as the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature, The Lost Estate deserves to be more widely read on this side of the Channel.
Two Muslim families collide in Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire; one from a wealthy, privileged, political family, the other from Wembley’s poor immigrant community. Eammon, son of British Pakistani Home Secretary, Karamat Lone and his glamorous American designer wife, Terry, falls head over heals in love with Aneeka, orphaned Pakistani girl with Jihadi father and brother. Interesting premise for a story and fertile ground for moral dilemmas and culture clashes. Shamsie keeps the suspense and gripping love story moving at an impressive pace. Shame, then, that the ending feels contrived. I blame it on Sophocles.