Though the “overnight success” story tends to make headlines, debut novels are more often the result of years of hard work and dedication. This month, we’re highlighting four debuts that deserve some time in the spotlight.


It is always a treat when a talented writer chooses to write about her home, particularly when she does so with authority, clarity and imagination. Such is the case with Carrie La Seur, whose debut novel The Home Place gives readers a stunning but frank look at what it means to be from Billings, Montana.

La Seur, herself a lawyer, employs her intimate knowledge of the legal system and her familiarity with the setting to create a powerful work of fiction. The main character, Alma, has put her hometown far behind her to work at a high-end law firm in Seattle, but she is called back to Billings after her younger sister, Vicky, is found dead on the side of the road.

Upon arriving in Billings, Alma dubs herself co-investigator of Vicky’s death, quietly mulling over possible evidence, interviewing witnesses and interrogating potential killers. La Seur’s book is not just a crime novel, however. As Alma is forced to return to places she has worked to forget, she struggles with memories from her past—of first loves, of never-ending landscapes that have since been destroyed by mining, of her parents’ deaths, of Vicky’s life, of leaving Montana. With pitch-perfect prose, La Seur reminds us that home, though often a difficult word to define, is the place that pulls us no matter how hard we try to push against it.

—Stephanie Kirkland

Read an interview with Carrie La Seur.


BLENDING MYTH AND MAGIC
Marjorie, a graduate student in literature, assumed her sister Holly would always be her best friend and their grandfather’s bedtime stories were fairy tales. Then, after his death, Marjorie discovers notebooks filled with the same stories, now poetically rendered as Jewish folktales—though her grandfather never claimed to be a Jew.

Presented in full throughout the novel, these tales reveal aspects of Marjorie’s grandfather’s identity that undermine her faith in his character. As she struggles to interpret the stories, Marjorie has a series of encounters with an old man who not only knows about the notebooks, but also bitterly resents her grandfather.

While coping with these revelations, Marjorie struggles to accept Holly’s marriage to Nathan, a prickly, deeply observant member of an Orthodox Jewish sect. As Marjorie turns away from Holly and her new faith, a tragic event related to their hidden history forces Marjorie to set aside her anger and help someone she loves. As Marjorie’s investigations proceed, she discovers connections that span not just generations, but oceans, and that may even disobey the laws of time and space.

Stephanie Feldman’s first novel is a compelling mix of fable, history and mystery, but at the center, it is a very human story about how families accept one another’s choices while forgiving one another’s mistakes. The Angel of Losses is an ambitious work by a brilliant new author.

—Marianne Peters


A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR
David Leveraux just wants to fit in. He creates an easy, comfortable life with his pretty wife—but it doesn’t stay that way. His well-constructed life is artificial, and as he quickly discovers from his job in a 1970s research lab, artificial sweetness has its drawbacks.

Sweetness #9, the pretty pink artificial sweetener David examines in his lab, promises him, and the country, the good life. But it might have a dark side—since its introduction, many have become lethargic, anxious and overweight. But is that because of the pink powder, or is it just a product of the human condition?

It’s easy to think Sweetness #9 is an anti-food industry book, but it really isn’t. Artificial sweetener is used as a metaphor, and the real heart of the story is the past decades’ cultural shifts. It’s all here, from aerobics to blue ketchup, from school shootings to suburbia, from over-medication to diet fads. Chemical flavoring stands for our obsession with immediacy, our single-serving, isolationist culture and our inability to stomach anything nourishing, either culinary or emotional.

German-born author Stephan Eirik Clark’s style is understated and calm, punctuated with funny observations on the ridiculous aspects of everyday life. His writing is undeniably quirky, complete with a boy who loses his ability to use verbs, a German entrepreneur who flavored food for Hitler and a dancing monkey. But, like the sweetener, Clark’s style is masking something else: His quippy one-liners keep us entertained, so we barely notice the tale of hopelessness and loneliness that he’s creating along the way. Fans of Tom Perrotta will enjoy Clark’s pointed examination of the human condition.

—Carrie Rollwagen


EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Tom Putnam, an English professor at a small Southern college, had grown accustomed to living a simple, quiet life. His days were spent teaching, his nights at home with his unstable wife, Marjory, and her mother, the outspoken Agnes. Tom blamed himself for Marjory’s condition—a fleeting affair with a visiting poetess a decade ago had completely devastated her—and he never seemed to want more than he had. That is, until Rose Callahan arrives to run the campus bookstore and a series of unpredictable events change everything.

Rose is as lovely as her name, managing to charm almost everyone. Tom is taken with her instantly, but the very night they meet, he receives word that his affair produced a son, who will be coming to stay with him. Suddenly Tom must figure out how to navigate both his relationship with his son and his growing attraction to Rose.

Martha Woodroof’s delightful debut is a character-driven novel with a lot of heart. It’s a story of family, friendship and the unexpected ways people come in and out of our lives. Watching Tom and Rose change each other for the better is engaging and inspiring, and while some plot twists border on the unbelievable, Small Blessings is pure reading pleasure. Woodroof, an NPR contributor, clearly has a deep understanding of the human condition, and she has crafted a charming and compelling first novel that is perfect for book clubs and fans of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

—Abby Plesser

 

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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