I don’t think this has been a great year for literary fiction. I read great quantities of the stuff and enjoyed the novels I’ll list here, but for me there haven’t been more than a few standout novels. I tend not to read the titles that populate the bestseller list, since it’s now virtually all genre fiction. At the moment I think there are 3 literary fiction titles on the NY Times bestseller list. That’s okay if you’re a genre fiction fan! I’m just not.
I’m including books I read this year, regardless of year of publication–I have such a long list of books I’ve missed and I’m always trying to catch up. I’ve also been reading more nonfiction every year, so the list is divided into two parts, nonfiction to come shortly. I hope as you look through it, you’re nodding your head in agreement, or adding to your list of books to read.
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. W.W. Norton, 2014.
I have a weakness for fat novels set in India. (A Suitable Boy is still one of my all-time favorites) Mukherjee combines two stories; one is a domestic tale about an extended family in decline. It’s sharply observed and quite engrossing. The second thread follows one of the family members who rejects the family’s materialistic life and joins the Naxalite movement, fomenting revolution in the countryside. This novel is not for the faint of heart; characters lead troubled lives and trouble the lives of others; most are not at all likable. The novel is filled with thwarted dreams and poisonous relationships; I often felt that the author was writing in anger. Very powerful.
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas. Crown, 2014.
Dan Kelly, a working class Melbourne boy, wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school where he’s always an outsider. He sets his sights on the Olympics but after an early defeat turns to drugs and violence. Tsiolkas’s depiction of how rage fuels Kelly’s life is riveting. You may remember Tsiolkas’s previous novel, The Slap, which made a big splash a few years ago; it was longlisted for the ManBooker Prize and soon to be a TV miniseries. I enjoyed that one, but liked Barracuda even more.
The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.
The love triangle created when handsome cavalryman Bay Middletown is sought by an English heiress and Empress Elisabeth of Austria is the engine of this delightful historical romance with details of fox hunting and horsemanship and terrific character development. The historical characters are lovingly detailed.
This is without a doubt the most entertaining novel I listened to this year. The narrator was wonderful, not only distinguishing every voice, but conveying the nuances of each characters’ personality in her voicing. Entertainment of the best kind.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. Knopf/Doubleday, 2009.
I enjoyed O’Neill’s 2014 novel, The Dog, but prefer this earlier one, a story of post-9/11 New York. The main character, Hans, a transplanted Englishman with Dutch ancestry, is at loose ends when his wife and child return to England; he searches out the immigrants who play cricket and finds a community in this diverse group. This reflective novel explores themes of identity and exile in the most graceful way; O’Neill’s writing is marvelous.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Penguin, 2014.
Ng’s story of an interracial family in 1970s Ohio gets to the heart of the matter in ways that haunt the reader. We learn immediately that Lydia, oldest child of Marilyn and James Lee, is dead. The story is how Lydia’s life led her to that destination. Don’t dismiss this book because you think you’ve read enough books about missing/dead children (it seems to be a genre in itself). Ng’s story explores issues of race, gender, and identity in mid-20th century America in unforgettable ways.
Falling From Horses by Molly Gloss. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
Something about this novel reminded me of Jess Walter’s wonderful 2013 novel Beautiful Ruins. It’s probably the love that the authors have for their characters and the setting on the fringes of the movie industry. After a family tragedy, 19-year old Bud Frazer leaves the ranch in Oregon where he grew up, determined to become a movie cowboy, a stunt rider. It’s 1938 and the time and place are beautifully portrayed, along with the people and horses he meets up with. A quiet novel with a real beating heart at the center.
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Sometimes you know on the first page that you’ve found something special; I felt that way when I started We Are Not Ourselves, a very accomplished first novel. It’s hard not to make comparisons with Philip Hensher, Colm Toibin, or Richard Yares. Eileen Tumulty, an Irish-American woman raised in Woodside, Queens, is determined to grasp the American Dream for her own; her struggles and triumphs mirror the lives we led in the last half of the 20th century.
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Nesbit tells the story of the Manhattan Project from the viewpoint of the wives of the researchers. She uses first person plural– you may remember The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka and The Ladies Auxiliary, by Tova Mirvis were also written from that viewpoint. It creates a hypnotic effect and a powerful emotional sense of the experience of the out-of-the-ordinary lives those women lived for 3 years as enforced homemakers and secret keepers. The growing tension in their lives parallels the creation of the bomb. Moral issues pervaded the novel for me and I think will provide much food for thought for groups. I can’t resist a quote to give you the flavor: “We looked back on the time of our arrival to Los Alamos, how we felt very young. Some of us thought it was much better then, earlier, before we understood anything, though in our futures there was much more to learn.” Shivery stuff.
Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin. Random House, 2003.
The phrase “are you going out?” addressed to someone sitting in a car, has a special meaning on New York streets, where parking spaces are hotly contested. How Trillin can write a hilarious and engrossing novel about a parking problem is a tribute to his genius for dry humor and insights into the intractable problems of urban life. I suspect if you’ve never tried to park a car in Manhattan this one might not be for you…
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee. Penguin, 2014.
Lee’s dystopian novel is eerie and compelling, a departure in setting from his previous novels, but with the same precise examination of the human heart. In a future America, ruled by the all-powerful “Charters,” a young girl, Fan, makes a crucial mistake by falling in love. In her search for her young lover, Reg, she goes deep into the outlaw heart of the country.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions, 2014.
This is the third novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and they just keep getting better. I read the first, My Brilliant Friend, and was hooked, thought it was my special secret, then discovered that I was far from alone. Ferrante writes like no one else, in a propulsive style that captures the lives of the two protagonists, Elena and Lila, as they grow up and try to extricate themselves from the brutality of life in their village near Naples. The second novel is The Story of a New Name. If you haven’t read any of them, do it now! If you’ve been reading Ferrante, then it’s no news that this third novel of a fraught friendship is another masterpiece, a brilliant picture of the times as seen through the lens of women’s lives.