by Julie HaleSeptember 2011
Best paperbacks for reading groups
Two novels and a biography of one of history's most controversial women top our book club suggestions for September.
Alison Espach’s impressive debut, The Adults, is a witty and perceptive novel that chronicles the coming-of-age of 14-year-old Emily Vidal. Raised in a well-to-do corner of Connecticut, Emily is an intelligent, cynical teen with a solid set of parents—or so she thinks, until her father, at his 50th birthday party, declares that a divorce is imminent. Things get stranger for Emily when it’s discovered that the family’s neighbor, Mrs. Resnick, is carrying Mr. Vidal’s child. After her father departs for Prague and her mother takes to drinking, Emily finds herself at loose ends, with little respect left for the so-called adults in her life. As a sort of experiment, she begins an affair with an older man—an English teacher named Jonathan with whom she forges a long-term connection. Absorbing the shocks of loss and change, Emily evolves from sarcastic teen to mature adult, and her story—populated with offbeat neighbors, rebellious friends and boring teachers—makes for an unforgettable read. A stylish writer, Espach offers an insightful and convincing tale of young adulthood.
A REGAL PORTRAIT
Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff’s much-acclaimed biography, sheds new light on one of history’s most misunderstood monarchs. Offering fresh perspectives on the controversial queen, Schiff revises Cleopatra’s licentious image and presents in its stead a portrait of a multifaceted leader—a savvy statesperson and capable administrator who was adept at navigating tumultuous political waters. Although the oft-repeated allegations of bawdiness and violence are not misplaced, the truth about Cleopatra, as Schiff shows, is more complex. The lavishly quartered queen (her palace featured gold and onyx appointments) took her duties seriously, handling war, diplomacy and powerful men with the cunning of a seasoned diplomat. Schiff—winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)—is a skillful storyteller who knows how to spin the threads of history into a compelling narrative. Here, she clears away the tall tales to get at the truth about Egypt’s elusive queen.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Although it’s set at a Catholic boys’ school in Dublin, Paul Murray’s second work of fiction is anything but straitlaced. Daniel “Skippy” Juster is a 14-year-old student at Seabrook, and his death occurs early in this comic-ironic novel. Flashing back into Skippy’s past, Murray presents him as something of a loner, more thin-skinned than his gang of friends, which includes Ruprecht, a brainiac who’s obsessed with string theory; Mario, a wannabe lady-killer; and Carl, a demented drug-pusher. Among Seabrook’s student body, academic performance frequently takes a back seat to more pressing topics, such as the opposite sex. Indeed, matters of the heart make life complicated for Skippy, who competes with Carl for the affections of a girl named Lori. This classic tale of adolescence is filled with the requisite references—sports and sex, technology and religion—while Murray’s wit colors the entire proceedings. Skippy Dies is a delight from start to finish.