by Julie HaleMarch, 2005
New paperbacks for reading groups
The Birth of Venus
By Sarah Dunant
Set in Florence in the 15th century, this captivating novel is as opulent and provocative as the period in which it takes place. Weaving in elements of intrigue, conflict and suspense including a serial killer who has the city on edge Dunant captures all the intellectual ferment and political upheaval that made the era so dynamic. The novel's heroine, 14-year-old Alessandra Cecchi, is the daughter of a prosperous cloth merchant. She would like to marry but only because such a union might allow her to indulge a rather unconventional desire: to become a painter. Her beautiful sister Plautilla has more traditional ambitions, hoping to wed a wealthy suitor and supervise a bustling household. Their parents, anxious to protect Alessandra from the dangers afoot in the city, arrange a marriage for her to a man who seems to be harboring a dangerous secret. But Alessandra has already lost her heart to another. Dunant's female characters, including Erila, a North African maid, and Signora Cecchi, Alessandra's fussy, fretful mother, are complex, completely developed individuals who transcend stereotype. Much more than a prettily depicted coming-of-age tale, the book draws on various genres, and the result is a first-rate follow-up to Dunant's acclaimed thriller, Mapping the Edge. The narrative is reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, but Dunant has her own voice and style, and fans of historical fiction are sure to savor them.
A reading group guide is available online.
The Dew Breaker
By Edwidge Danticat
A "Today" Show Book Club pick, the latest novel from Edwidge Danticat, author of the best-selling Breath, Eyes, Memory, tells the story of a young Haitian woman and the shocking secret she learns about her father. Made up of nine tightly connected chapters, the book follows Ka, a sculptor, who travels to Florida to deliver a piece she has recently completed a mahogany rendering of her father. A former prisoner in Haiti, her father joins her on her journey, and the sculpture prompts him to tell the truth about his past: he was not, after all, a captive in Haiti, but a prison guard and torturer employed there by the government. His confession stuns Ka to the core, causing her to completely reevaluate her past. Meanwhile, the Haitian immigrants in their Brooklyn neighborhood have recognized her father and know about his history, and his presence becomes a source of pain for everyone. Other chapters in the book present detailed looks at the lives of various Haitians in New York, including a spinster seamstress named Beatrice, who was tortured years ago by Ka's father before coming to America. Offering a kaleidoscopic portrait of the immigrant experience, this is another timely and profound work of fiction from Danticat.
A reading group guide is available in print and online.
By David Denby
Movie critic for The New Yorker and best-selling author of Great Books, Denby offers a moving tale of personal loss with this frank account of his misadventures in the world of investing. The year is 2000, and Denby, devastated by his wife's decision to split with him after 18 years of marriage, turns to the stock market for solace. Investing heavily in an effort to hold on to the family's Manhattan apartment, he sets a remarkable goal for himself: to make $1 million in the market. Taking advantage of his connections as a journalist, he manages to hobnob with ImClone and Merrill Lynch executives at a time when the market is thriving, but it's all to no avail. Denby wins big and loses big to the tune of $900,000. As he reveals the details of his failure, he doesn't go easy on himself. Denby narrates the story with humility and humor. This is a riveting memoir of personal bottoming-out and the road to recovery, a wise book filled with philosophical asides on materialism, middle age and love. The author's reflections are shrewd, and his prose crystal clear. With this smartly written tale of stock market insanity, Denby has much to offer the reader except, of course, sound financial advice.