While many gruesome news stories become fodder for the juggernaut of true crime, Toews makes delicate and beautiful work out of one horrific event by focusing on the decisions the victims make in the aftermath. The latest novel from the acclaimed Canadian, who grew up Mennonite, is inspired by a Mennonite colony in Bolivia where the women (and their daughters) were routinely drugged and raped. Toews’s fiction is mostly a set of transfixing conversations, recorded by a trusted man, in which the women debate their three options: stay and submit, stay and fight, or escape for good.
In 2019, even good old-fashioned realists like Freudenberger — doing her best work in this novel about grief, family, and science — play with supernatural possibilities. Helen, a famous physicist in her 40s, is hyperrational until Charlie, her long-distance best friend, dies of lupus. Then Helen starts getting texts from Charlie’s phone that only Charlie could have sent. A single mom by choice, Helen begins to mourn and then meld with Charlie’s widower and daughter — which is when the story (and the theoretical physics) gets engrossingly complicated.
Reichl is a seasoned hand at memoirs about food and life. But this one focuses on her decade at the helm of Gourmet, where, riding a steep learning curve, she reinvented what a food magazine could do (run articles by David Rakoff and David Foster Wallace, for one thing). Then the recession and general decline of Condé Nast’s fortunes swept the glossy away. So there’s a wistful note, but mostly a celebration of work and gossip in the vein of Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries (only warmer, and with recipes).
Two journalism memoirs on one list, you ask incredulously? Yes, and they’ve both earned their place. Caro’s adventures in investigative reporting — the rabbit holes he fell into and dug himself out of on the way to magisterial books on Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson — are both revelatory and highly entertaining. For most of Caro’s life, research couldn’t be mediated through a screen or search engine, but he’d never have it any other way. Brimming with anecdotes, wit, and enthusiasm, Caro shows, with uncharacteristic brevity, that there’s no substitute for genuine shoe leather.
In Constantinople it was possible for an upper-class Palestinian to have a French education. That’s where Midhat Kamal went to school before shipping off to southern France for medical training after World War I. He falls in love, moves to Paris, becomes “the figure of the Parisian Oriental,” but he cannot shake family or home, even as instability and displacement loom. The personal conflicts — his love for the French girl, his family’s pressure to make his life in Palestine — are in the foreground, but the historical texture in Hammad’s debut brings it all to life.
The young Irish novelist’s work seems, like her titles, deceptively simple. (Her first book, Conversations With Friends, earned her an obsessive fan base.) Rooney’s second novel looks at first like the straight chronicle of a fraught off-and-on relationship between two sharp students who leave their small town for Dublin’s Trinity College. But then you notice the deft switchbacks in time, the subtle shifts in perspective, the crosscurrents of politics and class, and, most importantly, a hypersensitive interiority that can’t be taught. These lovers, Connell and Marianne, aren’t ordinary, and their strange connection becomes irresistible to readers, too.
One of the reasons foreign authors rarely break through in the States is the problem of translation — always an approximation of the writer’s true style. But Lispector’s lush, unresolved narratives are strong enough to weather the journey, which is why her posthumous revival in English continues apace. This 1948 novel concerns Lucrécia, a woman of average intelligence but extraordinary receptivity; everything about life in a changing Brazilian town is rendered with an almost hallucinatory focus as Lucrécia navigates the stations of traditional female life.