It is 1922, and England and her citizens are still recovering from the upheaval of the First World War: High unemployment, disillusioned ex-soldiers and severely strained circumstances are commonplace. Twenty-seven-year-old Frances Wray and her mother are living in South London. Both of Frances’ brothers died in the war, and her father’s recent death left the two women close to financial ruin. Even with the dismissal of servants and Frances taking over the housework and meals, the Wrays no longer have enough to live on. Their decision to take in lodgers, or “paying guests” as they genteelly refer to them, leads to an event as ultimately life-altering as the war itself.
Three acclaimed novels focused on history and family dynamics are sure to spark discussion in your reading groups this month.
Rene Steinke, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award for her novel Holy Skirts, makes an awaited return with Friendswood. Located outside of Houston, the town of Friendswood, Texas, is definitely all-American. The citizens are high on religion, high school football and the oil business. But then a hurricane uncovers not just buried toxic chemicals, but secrets and moral ambiguities that are crippling the town.
If a writer should follow Ernest Hemingway’s well-known dictum to write what he knows, then first-time novelist Jess Row just might be in the wrong business.
Land of Love and Drowning is narrated by the “old wives” of the island. They are the ones who receive and pass on the stories, including this one about the soldiers in New Orleans. An old wives’ tale is generally a label given to a tale thought to come from myth and superstition, and so should be considered with derision. But worse, an old wives’ tale is one that is often considered false in part because it is told by old women.
Set against the colorful backdrop of the Virgin Islands from 1916 to the 1970s, Land of Love and Drowning weaves an intricate tale of the legacy of an island family as it grapples with love, magic and death over more than six decades. A heartbroken patriarch purposefully sinks his ship into the Caribbean, leaving two daughters and their half-brother to make their own way, each in possession of a particular magic and unusual beauty.
A liberated Asian at odds with her conservative family or homeland is not a new story. Literature abounds with such declarations of independence in prose, doggedly demolishing superstitions and customs. This is especially true when it comes to an Asian woman's "proper" role in courtship and marriage, or non-role in the workplace. Jean Kwok's entertaining second novel, Mambo in Chinatown, thus breaks no new ground, except perhaps that it is her father, not her mother, who proves the protagonist's foil. Also: ballroom dancing!
Emma Straub’s delightful second novel, The Vacationers, is the best work yet from this Brooklyn-based writer, who previously penned the quirky short story collection Other People We Married and the historical novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Ah, WASPs: Those guilt-ridden, uptight, real estate-obsessed traditionalists. In Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, Sarah Payne Stuart captures the essence of this distinctive culture, tracing both her own childhood in Concord, Massachusetts, and the lives of some of Concord’s famous residents, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott.
Consider one of these novels—now out in paperback—for your book club's next read.