I’m happy to report a surfeit of good books of late. Three really satisfying reads that fall just short of my highest accolades but are well worth your time, plus one that really stands above the rest
The Mothers by Brit Bennett tells the story of a contemporary black Southern California teen who gets pregnant by the preacher’s son and the ensuing consequences over the next several decades. This is far from both the stereotypical teen pregnancy story and a welcome departure from the often-tired way black characters are depicted in American fiction. The characters are both flawed and complex, the themes of family, love, guilt, ambition and loyalty universal. There’s a Greek chorus of church mothers running throughout the book, a device I generally don’t love, but in Bennett’s more-than-capable hands, incredibly assured for a debut novelist, the voices actually add to the power of the book.
Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt is another story of a teenage girl, 16-year-old Lucy, who runs away to an isolated rural life with her high school English teacher. Again, this could have been a hackneyed story. But, in her best novel yet, Leavitt spins a tale full of surprises in both plot and voice. Set in the early 1970s with the Manson murders and Vietnam lurking in the distance, this novel is both suspenseful and scary in its depiction of naiveté, seduction and power.
A 17th century painting is at the center of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, which tells the story of the effect the artwork has on its creator, a wealthy art collector, and a young art history student who participates in a forgery. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, late 1950s Manhattan, and contemporary Sydney, Leavitt writes about gender and class and the effect of art in prose as rich as the paintings she describes. The opening scene in which a privileged New York hostess hires a group of Rent-a-Beats (as in beatniks) to liven up her charity benefit is priceless.
A word before moving on to the main attraction. I’ve discovered lately that many of my long-held notions about what I like and don’t like (or, in my case, love and loathe) are just plain nonsense. As in, “I don’t normally like books about art forgeries,” or “I detest the Greek chorus as a device.” As I’ve come to realize, good writing can make something as mundane as a refrigerator come alive. (Actually, your refrigerator reveals a great deal about you.) Could it be I’m softening with age? Horrors!
Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel Behold the Dreamers is one of the best books I’ve read about the contemporary African immigrant experience in New York. Imbolo, a native of Cameroon, is a talented new voice who skillfully depicts the eyes through which Jende, an ambitious, uneducated African, and his wife see American society, be it that of the Lehman Brothers executive, who hires Jende as a chauffeur, or their cockroach-infested Harlem apartment. There are also vivid descriptions of the world they left behind in Africa and how it contrasts with their existence in New York. Mbue achieves a multi-faceted examination of the value of the American dream and its price. This is a book you won’t want to put down.