This month’s best paperbacks for reading groups include novels from Jane Smiley and Carolyn Parkhurst, and an Emily Dickinson biography that brings the reclusive artist into the spotlight.

The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst, author of the best-selling novel The Dogs of Babel, is a captivating contemporary mystery with a spirited narrator at its heart. Novelist and widow Octavia Frost has been estranged from her son Milo for four years. When Milo, a rock musician, is accused of murdering his girlfriend, Octavia decides it’s time to reactivate their relationship. Traveling to San Francisco, where Milo has been arrested, she hopes to discover if the accusations against him are true. Mixed in with the story of this investigative quest are bits of Octavia’s own writing (revised endings, all of them happy, to her already published novels), and the presence of these extra narratives gives the novel a multifaceted feel. Octavia is a perceptive and eloquent narrator of events, and her pursuit of the truth—during which she crosses paths with expensive lawyers, annoying reporters and hard-living musicians—makes for delightful reading. Full of surprises, this is an intriguing novel from an author who consistently produces provocative fiction.

With Private Life, Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley presents a poignant look at marriage and the ways in which relationships change over time. Margaret Mayfield saves herself from spinsterhood by marrying, at the age of 27, a man she knows little about. Her husband, a quirky scientist named Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, is stationed at a naval base in San Francisco, and the two settle there in 1905. Margaret immerses herself in Andrew’s life, acting as his housekeeper, chauffeur and secretary, but as she soon learns, maintaining a sense of self while being part of a pair is one of marriage’s greatest challenges. When Andrew’s unorthodox theories about science and the universe take on a hysterical tone, Margaret finds herself with a new concern—that her husband might be mad. Spanning six decades, this well-plotted novel ranks among Smiley’s best. It’s a compassionate, richly detailed exploration of the difficulties of intimacy and identity.

A must-read for fans of the elusive poet, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds is the first substantive biography of Dickinson to appear in 10 years. Author Lyndall Gordon offers revelations aplenty in a narrative that’s both fascinating and illuminating. Arguing persuasively that epilepsy was the main reason Dickinson lived as a recluse, Gordon offers a lively portrayal of the artist, depicting her as a woman tormented by personal passions and by the betrayal of her brother Austin, whose illicit affair with the beautiful Mabel Todd tore the family apart. The legal clashes over Dickinson’s poetry that took place among family members after her death are surprising and unfold with genuine drama. Drawing on the poet’s medical records, diaries and correspondence, Gordon has crafted an irresistible investigation of a distant figure. Thanks to this rewarding work, a notoriously enigmatic artist seems more accessible and human.


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