These books from the past year, by two Pulitzer Prize winners and two debut novelists, are captivating and gorgeously written. Vastly different in style, they enclose you in their vivid worlds, each dark and alluring in its own particular ways. Despite the gritty realities that underscore all of them, you want to inhabit these worlds—because of the very thing that books still do better than any other form: that intimate closeness with characters’ minds, their vulnerabilities, their hopes, the immediacy of their experiences. These books share a deep humanity, a sense of wonder. All are the kind you’ll want to carry around or keep reading late into the night.
Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
Described as a novel, this book is a collection of linked stories that can each stand alone. Together they portray a web of characters in small-town Illinois, in the midst of farmland. The stories connect also to Strout’s acclaimed and devastating earlier novel My Name Is Lucy Barton; these are tales of Lucy’s hometown, and in one, of her visit there, in which she struggles to reconcile her longing for family with the realities of the poverty and abuse she endured. The characters are ordinary people whom you might call unremarkable, but Strout portrays them with such sympathy, makes their inner lives so heartbreakingly real, that they become striking and wonderful. Her writing gives us a profound and delicious sense of connection to the lives of others.
Marlena, by Julie Buntin
A coming-of-age novel that’s edgy, original, and exquisitely written, Marlena follows the friendship of two girls in woodsy and bleak Northern Michigan—a town marooned by remoteness, where extravagant lakeside vacation homes throw into stark relief the impoverished place where the narrator, Cat, and her neighbor, Marlena, live. Cat tells the story retrospectively; the danger, wildness, and electrifying intimacy of that friendship—and Marlena’s subsequent death—haunt Cat’s later life in New York City. “Tell me what you can’t forget,” the book begins, “and I’ll tell you who you are.” The prose is lyrical and alive. Marlena is a bright, beautiful book.
So Many Olympic Exertions, by Anelise Chen
A novel in the form of notes to self, Chen’s debut is smart and dark and slyly funny, propelled by psychological insight, simultaneously cynical and delightful. The narrator, Athena, is trying to finish her PhD dissertation on sports and becomes fascinated by those moments when athletes give up, by choice or by physical breakdown. It’s the dark underside of sport-as-metaphor-for-life, the shadow of the life-affirming, triumphant feeling that draws us to sports, as participants and spectators. The book traces Athena’s search for meaning in her New York academic world and beyond, as she grieves a friend’s suicide and struggles not to lose her PhD funding. But there is real pleasure in knowing Athena’s mind. This is a work of great intellectual depth and great human tenderness.
Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
A pulpy, noir historical novel in the hands of a brilliant literary writer, Manhattan Beach is a plot-driven work of suspense. Brimming with sensuality, haunting imagery, alluring characters, and the thrill of danger, the book brings World-War-II-Era New York vibrantly to life. The protagonist, Anna Kerrigan, is working a boring job at the Naval Yard, measuring parts for a battleship, when she sets her sights on becoming the yard’s first female diver—an uphill battle, as you might guess. Simultaneously she finds herself touching into the shadow world of organized crime, as she looks for explanations of her father’s disappearance. This is one of those rare books that combine exhilarating dramatic tension with real compassion and wonderful, evocative prose.