How to Cure the Beach-Read Blahs

With the onset of autumn, I’m guessing many of you are sick of so-called beach-reads and ready for some substantial fiction, the kind that lingers in the heart and mind long after you turn the final page. To those of you beset by the literary blahs, I offer a potent remedy.

The following contemporary novels are four favorites of mine. Take one (there are countless others) to bed with you, and before long you’ll feel revived and recharged.

Atonement

Ian McEwan’s Atonement hardly needs my imprimatur to validate its gifts; nevertheless, deep admiration requires that I add my unnecessary praise to this outstanding novel, a testament to the frailty of humanity and, in a meta twist reminiscent of the author’s Sweet Tooth, to the role of art as conciliator.

McEwan’s omniscient author channels life into the characters, flawed human beings, as he roams effortlessly from mind to mind across the years. We recognize in Briony the universal prevalence of adolescent impetuosity and naiveté that here devastate two individual lives amid the generalized devastation of World War II.

Long before Briony comes to understand the recklessness her actions, the reader is immeasurably saddened by its tragic consequences. Briony carries the burden of her guilt into old age, when she finally finds a way to make atonement.

I Am Pilgrim

I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes, is a riveting work of enormous narrative and structural complexity, a thriller that doesn’t skimp on characterization, but rather allows the reader to burrow into the heart and mind of the protagonist, a multi-named super-secret CIA agent. Widely dispersed settings range across the U.S. and the world: New York, Maryland, Virginia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, etc.

Starting with a shocking opening hook, the plot moves forward with all the profluence Gardner could ask for as Hayes skillfully integrates backstory and logically unites a murder in Manhattan with an Arab terrorist’s plan for apocalypse.

The author convincingly pulls together diverse characters, actions and viewpoints, and charges the whole with electric suspense. To generate that suspense, he supplies chapter-end cliffhangers along with little-did-I-know-what-would-happen teasers; he withholds information; and he sustains masterful pacing, which moves briskly, then slows down at key moments while the reader waits with bated breath for the blow to fall.

As the book draws to a close, Hayes deftly picks up loose narrative threads, spinning them into a denouement of vignettes. Technical virtuosity and bravura plotting raise this commercially successful novel far above the conventional potboiler.

Still Alice

Lisa Genova’s Still Alice asks a big question: Where does the self reside? The novel is a heart-rending, eye-opening look at the upheaval and destruction wrought by Alzheimer’s.

Fifty-year-old Alice Howland is under assault from early-onset Alzheimer’s, a particularly insidious form of the disease because its symptoms, not suspected in the middle-aged, mimic those of addiction, depression, and post-menopausal syndrome.

While many books describe the struggle of caretakers, Genova gives voice to the experience of the victim, the panic, loneliness and confusion, especially poignant in early-onset, when people are at the peak of their productivity, when loss of function is quickly and keenly discerned but fiercely denied with excuses.

Once her diagnosis is irrefutable, Alice—a brilliant Harvard psycho-linguistics teacher and researcher, a wife and mother of three—must decide what matters most in her life and try to hold on to it as long as possible. To this end, she develops memory-jolting techniques, such as cell phone signaling and note-taking.

Before long she forgets why the phone is beeping, then can’t even identify the sounds; she forgets where she places her notes, then can’t decipher them. Readers witness her grasp on the past gradually loosen as the author, herself a scientist, marks Alice’s weakening sensory, verbal, and emotional responses. We wince as Alice gradually but relentlessly loses one faculty, one memory after another until she cannot attend to the work and the family that formerly defined her.

Throughout, the novelist treats her protagonist with great dignity, a fate too often denied victims of the disease. Her theme is simple and powerful: despite the cognitive ravages of Alzheimer’s, Alice is still Alice; she retains her identity as a valuable human being.

This novel is a triumph of Lisa Genova’s comprehensive research, expansive compassion and impressive fictive technique. It’s the kind of book I habitually search for but don’t encounter often enough—the kind of book I can barely pull myself away from and can’t wait return to.

 Room

What adult wants to read a 330-page story told by a five-year-old? Everyone who ventures onto the first page of Room, a stunner of a novel.

Emma Donoghue’s child narrator, Jack, grabs readers with his first words, “Today I’m five.” Half the novel is set in a single room where Jack’s mother, kidnapped as a teenager, is trapped by a psychopath who rapes her regularly and impregnates her.

Jack’s mother, “Ma,” makes their soundproofed, hidden outdoor shed livable and lovable to her boy, for whom Room and its accouterments–Table, Floor, Bowl–are unique entities, and Room itself the world. Wardrobe is the bedroom where Jack retreats to escape the attention of the kidnapper, his father, whom he calls “Old Nick.” The conditions of this life define normalcy for the child protagonist, captive since birth.

Ma sees to it that her son receives proper clothes and nutrients, as well as books and toys that keep his mind engaged. She raises a child who is verbally and mathematically precocious but has no sense of the world at large and lacks such basic skills as depth perception.

Through Jack’s innocent observations, his mother’s mental and physical anguish–her migraines, her depression, her unbearable sense of loss–are keenly felt by the reader. Their escape back into the world is rife with irony and nearly as pernicious as their bondage. Their experience of freedom evokes the Lovelace verse: “Stone walls do not a prison make.”

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As for 19th- and 20th-century novels, here are a few of my personal favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, The Golden Bowl, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, The Name of the Rose, Rebecca, The Go-Between, A Separate Peace, The Remains of the Day, The Things They Carried . . . the list goes on. Discover your own favorites. Then dig in and enjoy!

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