Revisiting novels can be a tortuous affair, sometimes bringing the painful realisation that we’ve outgrown favourite books and writers. Happily for me, The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell has provoked the opposite response. Maxwell’s nuanced and tender tale of male friendship remains a quiet triumph. Set in 1920’s Illinois, it charts the adolescence of pals Lymie Peters and Spud Latham, whose alliance hinges on Spud providing protection and social acceptance in exchange for Lymie’s devotion. In an era before male platonic love was considered questionable, their intense bond is fatally tested instead by misunderstandings, boyhood trauma, and the scarring silence of things left unsaid.
It’s 1922. We are in Moscow’s most distinguished hotel and one of its permanent guests, the unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has just been sentenced to a life in exile inside the hotel ‘never to set foot outside of The Metropol again.’ So starts A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with, a true, yes I will say it, feel good story. It’s not going to change your life, but Amor Towels’ book (also author of Rules of Civility) will entertain and delight with wonderfully crafted characters and enviably elegant writing.
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley positively springs from the Booker Prize 2022 longlist, and not merely for its conspicuously pink cover. At the age of 20, Mottley is the youngest author ever to make the longlist, dazzling with a debut coming-of-age novel set on the meanest streets of Oakland, California. This is 17-year-old Kiara’s story, technically still a child, but with adult-sized problems. When a dire financial emergency pushes Kiara into prostitution, her ‘baby ho,’ status renders her irresistible to a certain type of man, some of them even sporting Oakland Police Department uniform. What follows is a blistering study of corruption, abuse of power, and young black womanhood.
First published in 1962, Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck captures a momentous period in the writer’s life. Ageing, ailing, and concerned that he has lost touch with the American spirit, Steinbeck invites us on a road trip. Complete with customised camper van and a poodle named Charley, we motor thousands of miles under wide skies, in search of the essence of modern America. From his love affair with Montana, to misgivings about Texas, Steinbeck considers the ways that his country has changed since his wandering youth. In this gem of a travelogue, we’re in the finest of company.
The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant is an unjustly neglected American gem. A deliciously peculiar novel, comic and melancholic in equal parts, it takes us to a down-at-heel New York at the turn of the 1950’s and the dreary life of daydreamer and rent collector, Norman Moonbloom. Norman’s days are spent chasing rent from hapless tenants, whilst attempting to dodge their numerous demands, complaints, and often riotous domestic dramas. Too sensitive for the world of the mercenary slumlord, he will undergo a quiet epiphany against a disintegrating backdrop of leaking taps and treacherous wiring.
A female English professor and writer loses her best friend and sometimes lover to suicide. A few days later she’s asked to take over the care of his dog, an enormous Great Dane. No small ask as the writer lives in a tiny flat in a Manhattan building where dogs are prohibited. This is the plot of the otherwise plotless but strangely mesmerising The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a story about love, loss and being an artist, which, had my flight not been over, I would have read in one sitting.
In Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen we’re back in familiar Franzen-territory: the dissection of an all American family. After his more expansive (geographically and thematically) and, in my opinion, less successful Purity, Crossroads feels reassuringly familiar. This is both a blessing, he does it extremely well, but also begs the question: is Franzen a one-trick pony?
At seventeen, Marie is kicked out of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court in France and exiled to a godforsaken abbey in the English countryside. Deemed too ugly to marry, Marie, an orphaned ‘bastard’ with royal blood, is stowed away for life. There’s far more to Marie than meets the eye, however, and soon enough, she has turned the poverty-stricken abbey into a powerhouse. The question is: how does Eleanor feel about that? And, anyway, are women really meant to achieve this much? If a story about nuns in a 12th century abbey sounds dull to you, think again; Matrix by Lauren Groff is an absolutely riveting read.
It is 1666 and the plague reaches a remote Derbyshire village of some 360 souls. They decide to cut themselves off from the outside world in order to protect the surrounding villages. Based on a true story, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a haunting and poignant novel told through the voice of an 18-year-old village girl. Although published twenty years ago it has, of course, extra resonance for our times.
Having just finished Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s a talented writer. Her metaphors are spot on, her ambitions high and she’s an accomplished storyteller – at times. This Booker Prize long-listed novel about Marian Graves, a female pilot in the early 20th century, takes off with a roar, but seems to stall before it picks up again at the very end. Whether or not you’re willing to go on that 600 page journey I’ll leave up to you. I certainly haven’t given up on Shipstead as an author although this book was a bit of a schlep.