best of 2021

The Best Books of the Year (So Far)

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The book business has hurried back to its normal speed after last year’s hitches, and the slate for 2021 — of fiction and nonfiction alike — has been bursting with verve. Here are the best books of the year (so far).

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Technically, Ditlevsen’s memoirs first appeared in Danish in the late 1960s and early ’70s — three short, vibrant forays into the author’s young life in pre- to post-World War II Denmark, where she scrapped for secretarial jobs, fell in with touchy older mentors, and eventually rose to prominence. The trilogy’s publication this year in English (in one convenient volume) sparked a Tove craze. The author is candid about everything from botched abortions to the stultifying nature of life under Nazi rule. An edgier A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Copenhagen Trilogy is a discomfiting charmer that avoids the worst pitfall of the genre by refusing to turn into a redemption tale.

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In a recent chat for the 92nd Street Y, Ishiguro claimed that his work is growing more cheerful as he ages. That’s a hard comment to square with Klara and the Sun, which follows an “Artificial Friend” named Klara — a partially self-aware, sensitive humanoid robot — from her time in a shop, waiting to be bought, to the years she spends beside Josie, the sickly teenage girl who befriends her, buys her, and takes her home. Set in a slightly altered America, where automation has made humans redundant in their jobs and genetic fiddling has intellectually “lifted” some children, Ishiguro wades even deeper into sci-fi territory than Never Let Me Go, but asks similar questions about technology and the body, and whether self-awareness is the defining feature of humanity. His placid prose is as cooling and seductive as always — that is, until the ghastly twist. Cheerful? That depends on how grim the world looks to you today.

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Cue the “Everyone was talking about this” jokes. Lockwood’s debut novel — about a nameless protagonist simultaneously energized and depleted by “the portal,” a.k.a. Twitter — landed like a flower bomb, spraying the online literary landscape with little seeds to be tended, nurtured, and occasionally ripped out root and stem. It so fully encapsulates what it feels like to be held captive by the hilarious and horrible banalities of social media that critics and readers have eaten it up as a manifesto for our digital times. But what most reviewers left out is that in the novel’s second half, when Lockwood steps away from the internet and toward her narrator’s personal family tragedy, No One Is Talking About This transcends from clever to astounding.

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The bloody pyrotechnics of anti-abortion organizations in the early ’90s, country-club drunks and their cruel domestic antics, the pre-internet teen scene in Buffalo: Jessica Winter’s sophomore novel is Franzen-esque in its broad sweep of a Rust Belt family coming down off the highs of mid-century American capitalism. (I say that as a huge compliment.) Winter starts with Jane Brennan’s accidental pregnancy in the late 1970s, then works through her tempestuous relationship with her shotgun husband and the push-and-pull dynamic with her eldest daughter Lauren, and finally into the utter displacement the Brennan family undergoes when Jane brings home Mirela, one of hundreds of thousands of “Ceausescu’s children” — Romanian children abandoned in orphanages in poor living conditions. Like Graham Greene before her, Winter is fascinated by the Catholic draw to suffering — Jane’s as a beleaguered mother, Lauren’s as a misunderstood young woman, and Mirela’s as a nearly feral outsider — and she manages to elegantly and movingly write a novel about faith that doesn’t proselytize or condemn.

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Greenidge debuted with a bang in 2016 with her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, about a Black family who agrees to participate in a psychological study more nefarious than it first seems. Libertie is a tamer work, though no less forceful and imaginative. Libertie is the dark-skinned, free-born daughter of a light-skinned doctor mother in Civil War–era Brooklyn. The story begins when an enslaved man named Ben Daisy is delivered to them in a coffin — alive. From there, Greenidge charts Libertie’s development from college student to young wife, and then stranger among family in Haiti, wondering where she belongs and whether she belongs to someone. Every bit of Libertie is rich and vibrant, offering the best of what historical fiction can do.

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America isn’t paradise, one of Engel’s characters thinks to herself in this tale of a cleaved immigrant family. Co-workers murder each other with semi-automatics, kids blow each other’s brains out at school. And violence isn’t held at bay by ICE; in fact, it’s often perpetuated by the people who fill the agency’s ranks. Infinite Country follows whats happens when one member of an undocumented Colombian family is deported. Engel writes beyond mere frustration or sadness or economic hardship — and she brings individuality to a story too often told in statistics and two-minute news reports.

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Reading this novel is like holding a live wire in your hand. The first novel by a trans woman to be nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, it follows a triangle of people — Reese, a trans woman desperate to be a mother; her ex Ames (formerly Amy), who detransitioned and is living as a man again; and Ames’s boss Katrina, who is pregnant with his child and unsure about the prospect. But there is so much more than that — Detransition, Baby is populated like a Dickens village of the queer community, with married HIV-positive cowboys and IVF-entangled trans couples. Most refreshingly, it isn’t out to prove that a trans love triangle can move copies just as affectively as cis ones do; there’s no mimicry here. It is what it is, an eyes-wide-open escapade.

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In this mash-up of culinary history, cultural criticism, and memoir, the cookbook author and essayist chooses a different “difficult” fruit for every letter of the alphabet — things like authentic maraschino cherries made with poisonous bitter almond juice, little-known thimbleberry, inedible Osage orange. Some entries are almost entirely personal histories, but most move around more freely — like a chapter on juniper berries’ unwritten history as an abortifacient, or the story of the eugenicist horticulturist who domesticated blackberries for the masses. Through it all, you can connect the dots on humanity’s history of turning fruits into magical entities capable of tightening our skin, supercharging our diets, and making sense of evil in the world.

Aftershocks, by Nadia Owusu
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Nadia Owusu’s young life was splintered into dozens of little pieces — her Armenian American mother left the family, her sometimes cruel stepmother joined it, and she moved between continents for her father’s work for the United Nations. Her memoir Aftershocks, structured as a series of reverberations, doesn’t assemble those bits together. “I have written for meaning rather than order,” she explains. She whisks together the fractured history of her father’s homeland of Ghana and her own privileged bubble inside sometimes bomb-strewn locales, then teaches herself to reread her own childhood history, to see beyond the story she has always told herself of who she is.

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Cornflower blue, Simpsons-esque skies may be a thing of the past if the environmental scientists get their way. In Under a White Sky, the Pulitzer-winning Kolbert examines — in terrifying detail — the measures researchers and climatologists have already taken (like electrifying the waters of the Chicago River so invasive Asian carp can’t make their way to other tributaries) or are considering (filling the atmosphere with light-reflecting particles to form a sunshield and, in turn, a powdery firmament) to reverse-engineer the ecological mess humanity has gotten itself into. This is definitely an “It’s Time to Worry” book, but it’s also a wise rumination on hubris — how factories and engines and our desire for Progress set a ticking time bomb on our planet, and how mankind now thinks it can mastermind a way to cut the fuse.

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Forgive me for screaming, but In the Quick is Jane Eyre IN SPACE! The idea sounds unhinged, but its execution is so fresh and so understanding of Brontë and genre fiction that it all comes together in a wild Ad Astra meets Prep mash-up. In a not-so-distant America, orphaned young June Reed is sent to study at the space program her brilliant uncle founded after his early death. At the same time, a crew he sent deep into the solar system suddenly goes quiet. As June endures a punishing regimen of robotic sciences, physical fitness, and team-building exercises, she quietly works on the problem of where the crew might be and how best to save them. An entirely fun adventure.

Hot Stew, by Fiona Mozley
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Lately I’ve been missing the sweaty rub of strangers’ arms in tight city streets and the faint smell of yeast rising up from bar floorboards. Cities are made for clamor and bustle, and the past year has emptied them of both. Mozley’s Hot Stew is just the sensorial knockout I needed, alive with the hoots and steam of a small patch of London’s Soho, where an unlikely group of tenants works to keep their building, a French restaurant with a brothel on top, out of a developer’s grip. Among the tenants are a sex worker and her carer, a homeless couple who inhabit the grates beneath the building, a policewoman, and a bright young thing — a mix just as chaotic as any group of strangers sharing walls and air in the city’s bowels. Mozley writes across the spectrum of humanity — a talented juggler who throws a dozen plates in the air and then catches each one as if it were nothing.

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A biography that intentionally blows up its subject’s own image. On the cover: A demure Helen Frankenthaler neatly seated on one of her pastel-soaked canvases in a salmon-pink button-down that could blend right in with the paint, a dainty cream headband holding back her Veronica Lake curls. Inside: A rollicking beat-by-beat saunter through the downtown 1950s art scene and a long-overdue reckoning with Frankenthaler’s oft-derided, so-called “feminine” work. Too pretty, too rich, too well-connected — these were the bombs lobbed at Frankenthaler even after she produced Mountains and Sea, the seemingly brushstroke-free, nursery-colored work that Nemerov claims launched the genre of color field painting. Nemerov admits to his subject’s privileges, but undoes the (jealousy-induced) fantasy that Helen, as he calls her, was just a painter of pretty little pictures. This Helen is a woman of the mind, a crucial component of America’s mid-century dominance in the art world, and, at times, a provocateur, even if she didn’t see it that way.

OxyContin didn’t simply assemble itself and leap off pharmacy shelves into the mouths of passersby — there was a hearty campaign to keep this noxiously potent pain medication pumping through people’s veins. So while Beth Macy’s nonfiction Dopesick and Nico Walker’s novel Cherry, both from 2018, chronicle the effects of the opioid epidemic on addicts, Keefe’s rigorously reported and brilliantly executed Empire of Pain hones in on the family whose company developed, unleashed, and pushed the drug on Americans, pulling in billions of dollars for themselves in the process. Until a few years ago, the Sacklers might’ve been better known for philanthropy: Their name was all over museums and cultural institutions across several continents. But reporters like Keefe have made “Sackler” synonymous with greed, turning it into an adjective that means keeping oneself surrounded by 3,000-year-old Chinese ceramics and silk drapes at the cost of human lives. This is an important, necessary book for understanding the opioid epidemic and how apathy became the American standard.

Give me the glorious tangle of page-long sentences, the piled-up cacophony of crowded prose. In Painting Time, French novelist de Kerangal (she whose book covers always lure me in) refuses to match form to subject matter, a collision that yields a stylistic wildness we need more of. Protagonist Paula Karst is a young Parisian decorative painter learning trompe l’oeil, “the art of illusion,” at an intense Belgian institute that churns out faux marble re-creators and faux bois conjurers, but not artists. Formerly a glassy-eyed layabout, decorative painting has molded Paula into a rigorous worker, and Painting Time accompanies her through that transformation. As she moves from Paris to Moscow to Rome and back again, it’s de Kerangal’s meticulous understanding of the tiny devotions that craftspeople make again and again — the thin strokes, the blended edges, the changing of brushes — that elevates Painting Time into a pulsing ode to creative labor.

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The first time I heard about ACT UP — the organization that formed to demand that the political establishment and scientific community take action on AIDS — was nine years after it was founded, when activist David Reid poured the ashes of a friend who’d died of the disease onto the White House lawn in 1996. “If you won’t come to the funeral,” he said, “we’ll bring the funeral to you.” The act was shocking to my 12-year-old self, but it’s not nearly as shocking as the history of neglect, contempt, and disgust for the gay community that thinker, archivist, and ACT UP activist Sarah Schulman writes about in Let the Record Show, a necessarily expansive and bombastic corrective of modern history. Using years of interviews and her own vast inside knowledge (the Times’ Parul Sehgal called Schulman “a living archive”), Schulman charts ACT UP’s highly effective barricade-storming tactics, eventual sway over drug companies, and early ’90s fracture. Let the Record Show is as righteous and revelatory as its subject matter.

Second Place, by Rachel Cusk
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I counted over 130 exclamation points in Second Place, Rachel Cusk’s first novel since the end of her highly celebrated, much-dissected Outline trilogy. For Cusk, well-known for her tight control over her prose, such bluster and exuberance demonstrate a more unwieldy new direction, an experimental phase. Protagonist M is the bombastic exclamation-point user, as she writes a letter to a friend about her miserable experience hosting L, a famed painter of the Lucian Freud variety, at her home in an English marsh. Seeing L’s work once helped to transform M’s life, and she hopes his presence will provoke another revelation. Second Place grapples with the contradictory desire to be muse and artist, and with the extraordinary tolerance that the world shows intolerable men.

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In the first scene of Good Behaviour, originally published in 1981 and reissued in May by the reliable folks at NYRB Classics, protagonist Aroon St. Charles kills her mother with the mere scent of a rabbit mousse. She puts the lunch tray in front of her, and Mummy trembles, cries, vomits, and promptly dies in “a nest of pretty pillows.” Is it intentional? Why no, not exactly, but it is a glorious introduction to this novel with a hungry, wolfish smile but no visible claws. Aroon is a child of the Irish aristocracy, raised in the early 20th century in a manse built by her ancestors; she’s bent on explaining her good intentions to the reader, though she seemingly understands very little of her own motivations. This is not a damp, woe-is-the-child redux: Good Behaviour includes very little good behavior, featuring instead delicious and deleterious accounts of illicit sex and wild high jinks, and a mother-daughter duo who can scrap with the best of them.

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Few writers arrive so thoroughly formed that their work wards off comparison. But Akwaeke Emezi — the Nigerian-born author of the novels Freshwater and The Death of Vivek Oji — emerged from nobody’s rib, and their new memoir-in-letters isn’t some run-of-the-mill curtain pull on an author’s life. It’s an excavation into Emezi’s identity as ogbanje, a reincarnated spirit born to cause grief or suffering. The writer doesn’t bother to cultivate one style or massage a singular theme. Instead, their memories move between the corporeal (the deep pain of gender confirmation surgery) and the transcendent, a potent shimmy between two worlds. “Some people can’t finish the spell because they balk at the costs,” Emezi writes about their adamant rejection of a limiting world.

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Witch hunt! The phrase has enjoyed a renaissance, courtesy of our former POTUS, along with MeToo-ed men of all varieties. It reverts to its original meaning in this romp, from the cerebral and daring novelist and essayist Rivka Galchen, that’s set in 17th-century Germany, a time and place where women were hunted, jailed, taunted, and tortured for actually (supposedly) being witches. Galchen’s novel focuses on illiterate but brilliant Katharina Kepler — a real historical figure and the mother of the iconic astronomer Johannes Kepler — as her neighbors turn against her, bringing wild charges of hexing and poisoning. This parable about the dangers of many little lies is also a true guffawer, with a protagonist so sharp and self-righteous she may have a direct familial line to Olive Kitteridge. Read it to leave this century behind for a while.

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My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina / it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always / she never saw her again / Ashley is my grandmother

Ruth Middleton 1921

That’s the inscription sewn on a simple, stained cotton sack that was handed down from Black southern mothers to daughters starting in the mid-19th-century, until it appeared in a flea market in 2007. This accidental prose poem is a paean to the legacy of those orphaned by slavery, who carried only the most meager understandings of their lineage. In All That She Carried, historian Tiya Miles turns this one artifact into a touchstone, searching for the real Rose and Ashley, and along the way explicating the cultural histories of every item once stowed in that bag — the braid of hair perhaps shorn to degrade its owner, the dress a product of the cotton industry its wearer was yoked to. All That She Carried is, as Miles put it, “more meditation than monograph,” a gorgeous devotional to all we still can’t know about the lives of the enslaved.

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All of Taylor’s stories of young midwestern ennui are A sides, but one tale from this new collection, “Anne of Cleves,” is particularly bound-for-the-anthologies good. Sigrid is on her first date with Martha when she asks her with which wife of Henry VIII she most identifies. Martha is an engineer, living outside the shimmery dome of the liberal arts, and she barely understands the question. But it reverberates underneath their whole relationship; for the next 30 pages, the two women slide toward one another and then away in a mating dance reminiscent of a Shirley Hazzard story, where sighs and shifting thighs make huge waves. And yes, Martha is an Anne of Cleves: strong, stoic, and capable of survival. Taylor’s energy is so focused, his characters so full and motley, that each of the 11 tales here (some of which are linked) fleshes out a small spinning world of its own.

Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder
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Yoder’s debut novel is about an artist turned stay-at-home mother who suddenly sprouts pointed teeth, a scruff of fur, and a spry little tail — she’s morphing into a dog, self-named Nightbitch. The transformation is less monstrous than you may imagine, and the book isn’t a cerebral Mom Meltdown Novel in the vein of Rachel Cusk or Sheila Heti. Instead, it basks in the physical burdens and blessings of motherhood: the dreaded “Schedule” of toddler life and the hours of bedtime routine, rambunctious play, and melding cuddles. It also features mauled animals and slobbered-up pot roast and varieties of mythical women who can fly and disappear. Wild and strangely hopeful, Nightbitch’s success lies in Yoder’s controlled style (“She held two master’s degrees, where he held none,” the mother thinks about her husband. “She also held a baby”) and its leap just beyond reality. If motherhood is an otherworldly state, why confine a story about it to the strictures of the real world?

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Katie Kitamura’s novels are like recently vacated rooms. The occupant’s scent is still there, the warmth of their hand on the doorknob, but the space itself is desolate. Intimacies is the story of an interpreter for an international court in The Hague who is lingering in an in-between space of her own — she cannot pin down her Dutch boyfriend, who moves between her and his estranged wife, or the charismatic, recently deposed African president whose words she worriedly translates as he stands trial at the court for crimes against humanity. Is she misreading everyone and everything in her adopted country? Is there a reason for her to feel this low-level dread? Like Muriel Spark in her darker moments, Kitamura taps into the most basic human fear: that we will never really know anyone.

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Kleeman doesn’t do maudlin — she forces you to look into the fun-house mirror until you realize that what you’re seeing is reality. Something New Under the Sun starts off as a Hollywood send-up, when a novelist arrives on the set of a film adaptation of his work and discovers he’s actually a babysitter for the tabloid-ravaged teen bopster playing the lead. He also realizes he’s in a hellscape where water is scarce, a commodity for the yacht set, and WAT-R — a molecular near copy of the real stuff — is pumping out of every other faucet and plastic bottle in California. Because this is Kleeman, the plot is far less important than the view along the way. Her writing is cool, detached, and DeLillo-ish, the urgency red hot. Reading it while the West crackles, it’s easy to imagine this book may someday be a vital artifact from our era of climate twilight.

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The British press has been singing the praises of Wilson’s wise, brutally honest, expansive consideration of Lawrence’s “middle years” — the time from 1915 to 1925 when he wrote Women in Love and The Rainbow, exiled himself from England, and tried to found a utopian community in New Mexico. American readers haven’t picked up on it yet, but it’s time to change that! For all the hoo-ha that once surrounded his reputation and antics, Lawrence is now considered a sturdy, capital-I Important writer. Nonetheless, his novels don’t make it to syllabi, and his life hasn’t been called up for a feverish prestige biopic. Wilson writes without undue flattery or inflation about this decade of Lawrence’s life, when he was convicted of spying for Germany and darted across America to meet a mildly mad heiress and produced some of the century’s most enduring novels. This is a biography on fire, brilliant with tiny anecdotes and broad assertions about English literature alike.

Matrix, by Lauren Groff
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This is a novel you feel in your muscles. It will give you delightful aches and shivers, make you revel in the pleasure of the moving, living body. Groff, who achieved better-than-cult status after publishing her last novel, Fates and Furies — an operatic bait and switch about a married couple — has written an even more ingenious follow-up in this bildungsroman about the 12th-century poet Marie de France. In Groff’s telling, Marie is cast out of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and sent to run a convent, where her unlikely dominance and fortitude lead her to transform it from a mess of brambles into a richly productive hub of working women. Groff writes brilliantly about closed communities (see Arcadia, her novel about a New England commune), and in Matrix she simultaneously captures the thrill of the working physique, the fearful enchantments of spiritual rapture, and the glories and entanglements of an all-female world.

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Whitehead knows how to slither into a new literary identity with perfect ease. He started his career writing magic-sprinkled novels about zombies, elevator-repair workers, and John Henry before publishing The Underground Railroad in 2016 and The Nickel Boys in 2019, both investigations of cruelty inflicted upon Black Americans. These books became runaway hits of the change-the-author’s-life variety. How to switch things up again? Harlem Shuffle is a zooming, maniacal caper; the fact that it’s wrapped up in a historical novel is a sweet little bonus. There’s too much (read: just enough) plot for one sentence to do it justice, but let’s leave things here: A scheme by a madcap cast of characters to rob a swanky uptown hotel canters alongside a potent reconstruction of mid-century Harlem’s buoyant vibes.

If anyone has shaken up the autobiographical novel in 2021, it’s Watkins. This book is a hodgepodge of forms: It includes edited letters that were written by Watkins’s mother, real memories slipped inside invented ones, and pasted-in excerpts from her father’s book about his time in the Manson Family. Imagine if the Great American Road-trip Novel were centered on a mother who deserts her family in the middle of a work trip and ends up climbing down a memory hole into her own Wild West childhood. It’s unstable and chaotic — the perfect format for Watkins’s displaced and disillusioned protagonist and for a new rendering of American migrations, American families, and American success stories built on ill-used, mythologized land. This brilliant work — Watkins’s best so far — is a waving red flag indicating that the American novel has to change along with the American way of life.

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Liselle is a private-school teacher in a tony Philadelphia neighborhood; her lawyer husband, Winn, just lost an election for state representative, and the FBI is investigating him for his campaign’s behavior. Set around a dinner party Liselle is reluctantly hosting, Solomon’s insightful The Days of Afrekete dives back and forth between Liselle’s cracking veneer and her memories of an intoxicating relationship (with the brilliant, unconventional Selena) that once constituted her world. It’s in the nitty-gritty that Solomon nails things — Liselle’s fretting over whether financial success has recast her as an out-of-touch Black woman; the rightfully chaotic depictions of sexually ambiguous entanglements. The publisher describes The Days of Afrekete as Sula plus Mrs. Dalloway; Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf may be towering names to live up to, but Solomon is on the right track.

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The Lucy Barton universe keeps expanding. Strout published My Name Is Lucy Barton, the gentle blockbuster introducing the character, in 2016, then broadened the web with the interconnected stories in Anything Is Possible, set in Lucy’s quiet Illinois hometown. Now Strout has written a more linear follow-up with Oh William!, which takes place about 20 years after the events of the first book and sees Lucy widowed and reconnecting with her first husband, the titular William. Strout’s placid prose and unswerving style go down as easily as ever. In other hands, this novel might reek of franchise aspirations, but the Pulitzer-winning author remains as devoted as ever to storytelling that prods at life’s big questions about trauma, loneliness, and the search for a hand to hold in the dark.

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The Best Books of the Year (So Far)