We asked award-winning novelist Kate Walbert a few questions about her luminous new novel—and her own relationship with New York City.
Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August opens with two women spotting a battered index card on a bulletin board promising a summer of spring water, blueberries and sea glass on Little Lost Island, Maine. If this sounds familiar, it may be because of the similarity to the opening of Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim’s beloved 1922 novel of four women whose lives are transformed by a summer in an Italian castle. Bowen has refashioned the classic, relocating the action but keeping the character names and the spirit of lives reinvented by new surroundings.
Kate Walbert has always been a keen transmitter of women’s voices, from conforming suburban wives in the 1950s to British suffragettes during World War I. In her most recent novel, The Sunken Cathedral, Walbert tunes in to a complex chorus of female characters in contemporary Manhattan, a city recently altered by climate change, tragedy and new wealth.
Readers met the Langdon family in Some Luck, the first novel in Jane Smiley’s trilogy about an American family and an Iowa farm. A straightforward, almost old-fashioned novel, it opened in 1920 and covered the following 33 years—one year per chapter—in the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their six children with tenderness and surprisingly subtle humor. Now, in the more ominously titled Early Warning, Smiley casts an even wider net, as the Langdon children, now grown to adulthood and with children of their own, navigate the immense social changes of the 1960s and ’70s.
Venetia Stanley was a great beauty of her day, sought after by poets and painters eager to pay homage to her good looks. Her early death in 1633 has remained a mystery over the centuries, some accusing her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, of murder and others ascribing her demise to the toxic beauty treatments she was rumored to have used. Hermione Eyre’s brilliant debut, Viper Wine, explores the perils of achieving beauty at all costs, set against a backdrop of the political and social upheaval of 17th-century London.
Edith Pearlman has been publishing award-winning stories since the late 1970s, but became more widely known in 2012, when her story collection Binocular Vision won both the PEN/Malamud and National Book Critics Circle awards and was a finalist for numerous others. Her new collection, Honeydew, gathers tales from the last 15 years, each one a closely observed look at the ordinary graces and sorrows of everyday life.
It’s easy to forget that by the time he was 41, F. Scott Fitzgerald was washed up. His books were out of print, magazines weren’t interested in his stories and his monthly royalties were down to pocket change. In 1937, he went to Hollywood, where he struggled to make a living writing screenplays, barely staying one step ahead of his creditors. It is these lean years that Stewart O’Nan examines in his brilliant biographical novel West of Sunset.
How to Be Both, by the British writer Ali Smith, tells two interconnected stories. The first is about Georgina, known as George, a 1960s teenager outside of London grieving the death of her mother and taking her first tentative steps toward love. The other is the story of the 15th-century Italian painter Francesco del Cossa, a historical figure responsible for the remarkable frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy—and about whom very little else is known.
A Map of Betrayal, the new novel from the PEN/Faulkner-winning author Ha Jin (Waiting, Nanjing Requiem) is a haunting tale of two families and two countries that are linked together by the life of a single spy. When American-born professor of Asian Studies Lillian Shang inherits her father Gary’s journals, she uncovers details of his four-decade career as a spy for Communist China. But when history threatens to repeat itself in the next generation, Lillian must struggle with issues of loyalty and betrayal.
Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is an appealing mix of archival mystery, ghost story and historical novel. Told in reverse chronology, it unfolds as a kind of bookish scavenger hunt set in a former artist’s colony, uncovering clues and putting pieces of the fictional puzzle in place. I was able to catch up with Rebecca at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books.