Let’s pretend summer is right around the corner. You’re going to need your summer reading list. And if there’s any type of merchandise I’m qualified to opine on, it’s books.
I just finished “The One-in-A-Million Boy,” by Monica Wood. The book lives up to its title in that it, too, is one in a million: it manages to be both heart-warming and tragic, a love story without romance.
It tells the story of 104-year-old Ona Vitkus and her unlikely friendship with a young Boy Scout tasked with being her handyman. Their friendship manages to reconnect Miss Vitkus with her past and inspire her to plan for her death-defying future. It also brings the boy back to his parents, and his parents back to each other. It is a tale told simply, with a twinkling wit and sincerity. Quaintly for us, the author hails from Maine, and she has set this story in and around Portland.
Wood rose to national acclaim and local-hero status when she published her memoir, “When We Were the Kennedys” (which I also recommend), in 2012. She was then in her late 50s.
That relative late-blooming brings me to “The Nest,” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. It is Sweeney’s debut novel, which is remarkable because she was 54 at its publication. To be clear, I find her age significant because it shows it’s never too late to find new career success or establish your voice as a writer, and not for any less generous reason.
“The Nest” is a good book, a beach read of the highest order. The four Plumb siblings are forced to contend with the dissolution of their inheritance, thanks to the drug-addled disaster spun up by their eldest brother, Leo. The younger siblings had each depended on their eventual financial windfall in different ways, and they react to its disappearance with varying degrees of panic and back-tracking.
The story unfolds with the somewhat predictable technique of giving a different character center stage in each chapter. But it is entertaining and the ending is not entirely predictable. This is a good one for the gym, the airplane or, yes, the beach.
While there is one character in “The Nest” whose life is defined by Sept. 11, “Small Mercies,” by Eddie Joyce, is centered entirely on one Staten Island family’s attempt to rise out of the ashes of the fallen World Trade Center towers.
The youngest son of the Amendola family, Bobby, was a firefighter who died in the rubble. Like “The Nest,” Joyce’s novel passes the spotlight among Bobby’s brothers, parents, and widow to trace the family’s history, from Bobby’s birth to his death to his aftermath. Also like “The Nest,” “Small Mercies” is a debut novel by a writer who is no spring chicken; Joyce was actually first a lawyer for years in Manhattan, so he has a special place in my heart.
Somehow, “Small Mercies” manages to better depict the unique dynamics that can exist within a family, and to better draw the many sides of life in the boroughs of New York City. It’s the type of book that has you wondering what its characters are doing throughout the day, as if they exist somewhere outside the pages you’ve read.
Manhattan is also the backdrop to the longest book on this list, “A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanighara. This is a wonderful book that is perhaps 100 pages too long. It requires you to have a strong stomach and a roomy book bag. It’s about four college friends who move to Manhattan after graduation, and it tracks their rises, falls, and intersections over the course of at least four decades.
Jude St. Francis and his severely troubled past becomes the magnet around which the story orbits, and it is in the flashbacks to his childhood and the abuses he suffered that the reader is challenged to keep reading. Don’t be daunted by its heft or subject matter: this is a book worth giving your time.
Up next on my reading list are “Eligible,” by Curtis Sittenfeld, and “When Breath Becomes Air,” by Paul Kalanithi.
I hope you have happy reading ahead of you.