by Julie HaleNovember 2009
Best paperbacks for reading groups
This month's selection of best reading group picks includes historical fiction from Kim Barnes, Louis de Bernières, and Jamie Ford—three novels that are sure to spark discussion!
A Country Called Home
Set during the 1960s, Kim Barnes’ beautifully written novel tells the story of Thomas and Helen Deracotte, newlyweds who leave civilized, cultured Connecticut behind to start a fresh life in Idaho. Thomas, a doctor, sets his sights on opening a country practice and running a farm in the small town of Fife. Neither Thomas nor well-to-do Helen knows anything about farming, and so they hire Manny, an independent and capable hand, to take over operations on their homestead. Charmed by the idea of living off his own land, Thomas soon decides not to open a medical practice and turns his energies to the farm. But he relies heavily on handsome Manny, who quickly insinuates himself into the Deracottes’ good graces. After Helen gives birth to a daughter, the Deracottes’ dependence on Manny increases, and Helen—disenchanted by the responsibilities of new motherhood—finds herself increasingly drawn to him. Barnes, a Pulitzer Prize nominee for her memoir In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country (1997), writes poetically about the rough Idaho landscape, instilling the narrative with rich detail and vivid imagery. Her poignant portrait of an unraveling marriage brims with tension and suspense. This is a fierce novel that bravely explores the challenges of love and family life. A reading group guide is available online.
A Partisan’s Daughter
Taking 1970s London as its backdrop, Louis de Bernières’ captivating novel is a testament to the power of storytelling. Lonely and restless, Chris is stuck in a dead-end marriage and desperate for change, which arrives one night in an unexpected form—that of a mysterious Yugoslavian woman named Roza. Chris wrongly believes that Roza is a prostitute and tries to engage her services. Amused by the situation, Roza plays along and accompanies him. So begins a strange relationship that—instead of being based on sex—is founded on the power of Roza’s tales about her old life. In truth, she is far from a call girl. The daughter of one of Tito’s supporters, she is new to London and struggling to make a life for herself. Mixing fact and fiction, she spins incredible accounts about her existence in Eastern Europe, seducing the naïve Chris, who falls hopelessly in love with her. Roza’s stories transport him to a reality far more interesting than his own, and the consequences—heartbreaking and unforgettable—change Chris’ life forever. With his latest novel, de Bernières, author of Corelli’s Mandolin, offers a profound look at the ways in which a seemingly simple choice can irrevocably alter a life. A master novelist, he has written a fascinating and insightful book that’s part love story, part political history and part mystery. A reading group guide is available online.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Jamie Ford’s accomplished first novel focuses on Asian Americans in Seattle. Struggling to regain his equilibrium after the death of his wife from cancer, Henry Lee finds a welcome distraction in his own personal history. When he learns that the possessions of some Japanese immigrants who were imprisoned during World War II have been discovered in the cellar of a Seattle hotel, he is prompted to re-evaluate his life. Reflecting upon his childhood, Henry recalls the challenges of his upbringing in Seattle during the war. As a student at a reputable, predominantly white private school, he is teased mercilessly. While there, Henry falls in love with Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese-American girl who is also a student. After Keiko and her family are interned in a camp, he is forced to acknowledge the reality of anti-Japanese feeling, a sentiment his own Chinese father displays, much to Henry’s horror. Shifting back and forth between past and present, the novel highlights Henry’s strained relationship with his own son, Marty, a college student. The narrative presents his memories and musings in chapters rich with drama and finely choreographed scenes. Ford writes with assurance about the legacies of history and the difficulties of cultural assimilation. His poignant examination of the father-son relationship adds an extra layer of complexity to this mature debut. A reading group guide is included in the book.