Sure, you could be spending these pre-summer days doing outdoor activities — but wouldn't you rather be reading? For those whose answer to that question is an enthusiastic "yes," here are four new books worth staying indoors for.
"Love Marriage: A Novel"
by Monica Ali (Scribner, $27.99).
This is one of those enchanting books full of people making bad decisions, but you find yourself rooting for them regardless. Ali, previously a Booker Prize finalist for "Brick Lane," introduces us to two small families: the Ghoramis, consisting of India-born parents Shaokat and Anisah and their grown children Yasmin and Arif, and the Sangsters, British national and single mother Harriet and her grown son Joe. Yasmin and Joe are doctors (as is Shaokat), engaged to be married as the book begins, but Yasmin worries about how her traditional parents will react to Harriet, a well-known and outspoken feminist writer. She's wise to have worried, as the months before the wedding are filled with pronouncements, misunderstandings, sexual missteps and a gradual examination, by all of the characters, of love and passion.
Ali creates a rich world of contemporary London, with even minor characters beautifully and quirkily fleshed out (I loved Arif's girlfriend's grandmother La-La, "which was her stage name from when she was a dancer with a troupe called Legs & Co. that appeared on 'Top of the Pops'"). And the author makes the interesting choice to keep Harriet, the book's most larger-than-life character, mostly on the sidelines; Ali knows that sometimes a bright color is most vivid when used sparingly. Instead we most often see the story through Yasmin's eyes, a smart young woman trying to love her family and figure out what she wants. Ultimately, she and the reader come to appreciate the wisdom of Anisah, who knows that love, like a seedling planted and uprooted, can grow again.
"Tracy Flick Can't Win: A Novel"
by Tom Perrotta (Scribner, $27, out June 7)
More than 20 years after the 1998 novel "Election" (made into a darkly comic film the following year), Tracy Flick is back, and she's still bitter. The girl determined to win the presidential election at her high school no matter what — because she deserved it — is now a woman in her 40s who hates vacations, struggles to connect emotionally with others (including her own daughter) and has convinced herself that a dark incident in her past means nothing, because she's moved on. Now acting principal at a different high school, she believes that she deserves the top job, but as in high school, there are obstacles in her path: scheming colleagues, tedious committee assignments, a parade of people simply unwilling to recognize Tracy's obvious worth.
Perrotta, not an author you'd think would be interested in sequels (though I wish he'd write one to "The Wishbones"), tells the story through a web of different characters and perspectives. It's a book populated with middle-aged people disappointed in what life has brought — and yet, "Tracy Flick Can't Win" is an oddly uplifting read. Perrotta's great gift is that he lets his love for his characters, flaws and all, shine through, and Tracy emerges as a much richer, more sympathetic character than in the earlier book; she has grown, as has her creator. "I desperately wanted to go back in time," Tracy muses, "to find the girl I used to be and tell her how sorry I was for letting her down, that fierce young woman who never had a chance, the one who got crushed." I was rooting hard for Tracy Flick to, finally, win.
"The Woman in the Library: A Novel"
by Sulari Gentill (Poisoned Pen Press, $16.99, out June 7).
Of course I needed to include a mystery in this mini-roundup, and this one's deliciously tricky book-within-a-book-within-a-book structure won me over instantly. Australian author Gentill (whose previous works include "After She Wrote Him," winner of the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel) clearly had some fun with mirrors while plotting her book out: At its center is Freddie, a young Australian woman in Boston on a writing fellowship. She's working on a novel — and she's actually a heroine created by another Australian writer named Hannah, who's sending her chapters to an American writer friend for feedback (he's named Leo, and he's also in Hannah's book). Got that? Anyway, Freddie and her writer friends think they may have overheard a murder in the reading room at the Boston Public Library — it is, notes Freddie, the opposite of a locked-room mystery. Investigations are launched, fingers are pointed, potentially dangerous liaisons unfold and I was turning those pages like there was cake at the finish line. And, hmm, what exactly is going on with Leo?
Gentill works in some sly observations on language (Australian English and American English aren't precisely the same) and writing, as well as a decent little mystery plot, but really the pleasure of "The Woman in the Library" is that clever structure; a layered, literary hall of mirrors that's great fun to get lost in.
"Lessons in Chemistry"
by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday, $28.95).
Interesting that I was reading Garmus' delightful debut in the same time period as watching "Julia," the new HBO series about Julia Child: Both are stories set in the 1960s, in which a woman found an unexpectedly wide audience as the star of a television cooking show. But Elizabeth Zott, Garmus' unflappable heroine, is no cheerily lilting Child: She's a no-nonsense presence, a single mother and a brilliant chemist who lost her job in a research lab because (so they said) she was pregnant and unwed. Through an unexpected series of circumstances, Elizabeth ends up hosting the local cooking show "Supper at Six," where she focuses on the science of cooking and on ahead-of-her-time female empowerment. "She never smiled. She never made jokes. And her dishes were as honest and down-to-earth as she was."
Garmus, a former Seattleite now living in London, skillfully moves her narrative forward and backward, filling in the empty spaces in Elizabeth's story. It's a novel full of dark moments — there's trauma in Elizabeth's past, and Garmus doesn't sugarcoat the harassment and worse that a female scientist of that era might encounter. And yet "Lessons in Chemistry" feels richly funny, from the depiction of Elizabeth's beloved dog Six-Thirty (who leaves the room when Jack LaLanne's dog Happy appears on the TV screen) to her struggles to parent daughter Mad, the sort of child who, when mud pies are suggested, "frowned, then wrote 3.1415 with a stick in the dirt." Elizabeth Zott is a unique heroine, and you find yourself wishing she wasn't fictional: A lot of us — perhaps even Julia Child — might have enjoyed watching "Supper at Six."
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