Whether you’re beginning a week of vacation or just getting a head start on your summer reading list, here are some book recommendations from me.
Somehow, almost all of these picks take place in or around New York City. I did not realize that similarity until I started writing. Maybe the universe is telling me something. It’s up to you, New York.
“Modern Lovers,” by Emma Straub, is centered in a neighborhood block in Brooklyn. Two college friends have been neighbors there for years, having raised their babies into teenagers within a stone’s throw of each other. The novel catches them as their teenagers are getting ready to leave the nest and their marriages are on the rocks for different reasons.
Straub manages to serve up a dense plot that stays engaging and never feels overwrought. There are midlife crises, college flashbacks, a teenage romance, a bi-racial same-sex couple, a devastating fire, and a yogi who is also a petty criminal. You feel yourself on every street corner and in every head space.
“Sweetbitter” takes another strand of modern lovers’ story line – the challenges of the restaurant industry – and weaves an entire tale out of it, from the hotbed of the Manhattan scene. It is Stephanie Danler’s debut novel. It’s really annoying that anyone is this good on the first try.
Even if, like me, you’ve never worked in a restaurant, when you finish “Sweetbitter” you’ll feel as though you’ve come pretty close. Every page takes you deeper into a world of staff meals, manic chefs, haughty sommeliers, loyal customers, and divided loyalties among those in front of house, in back of the house, and everywhere in between. This is a novel you experience with your head, heart, nose and palate.
“The Animators,” by Kayla Rae Whitaker, starts in the boroughs of New York City, moves down South, and returns to its origins. This time, you’re immersed in the world of animation, as you follow the friendship and careers of Mel Vaught and Susan Kisses. Their art brings them acclaim, their friendship brings them the only family they could ever rely upon, and their career arguably brings one of them to her death.
This, too, is a debut novel. Again, annoying, but in a good, respectful way. It’s a longer, more intense read than the previous two books; I’d recommend reading it on sunnier days, as you’ll probably appreciate the antidote to some of the heavy, dark terrain this book covers.
For perhaps a more uplifting tale, try the young adult novel “The Sun is Also a Star,” by Nicola Yoon. This is the story of Natasha and Daniel, two teenagers who enjoy a “meet cute” so endearingly unbelievable it’s no wonder the book is being adapted into a movie. To wit: Daniel saves Natasha from being run over by a car, convinces her to have coffee with him, and spends the rest of the day slowly winning her over.
This otherwise tired story is given genuine heft because of who Natasha and Daniel are. She is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who face deportation within hours; he is the son of Korean immigrants who want their children to attend Ivy League colleges and secure professional careers that take them outside the beauty supply shop they run. Natasha and Daniel are at once familiar and utterly alien to each other, and to the reader. The novel offers a lovely and meaningful introduction.
The best book that I have read recently is “Commonwealth,” the seventh novel by Ann Patchett. Uniquely for this list, it kicks off in California and moves east to Virginia as it tracks decades of ripple effects stemming from an adulterous kiss one hot afternoon at a family party. Two marriages dissolve, leading to new marriages being consummated, necessitating the forced familiarization of six children.
Patchett gives us 50 years’ worth of repercussions, regrets, and renewals. She takes what could just be a soap opera and makes it high-brow, but totally readable, drama. It is engrossing. Clear your schedule once you decide to jump in.