Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton
Louise, broke and single and aimless, has a chance encounter with Lavinia, a rich and flamboyant party and society girl. The two quickly form an intense and unhealthy friendship. There are echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley (way more than just an echo, actually) and The Great Gatsby, only with more insufferable young literary men and social media references. Our society’s obsession with social media is a huge part of the narrative–lives lived for posting, scenes set up to share, friendship and admiration exhibited in “likes.” And, as in society, social media is used for nefarious purposes. In all a quick and compelling read with not many likeable characters, but fun all the same in a “what happens next” way.
Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti
A nonfiction account of one of the fastest and strongest hurricanes to hit the Northeast; one that changed the landscape from the creation of the Moriches inlet on Long Island to the complete devestation of the Connecticut and Rhode Island coast line. It held my interest both from the tales of the survivors and the awkard beginnings of the national weather service. With all the technology available today, we forget that there was a timre when the weather forecasts relied on the reports from ships at sea. When those ships heed the warnings to stay in port, there is no way to determine rhe change and direction of a storm system such as this one.
Liz Kendall has divorced her abusive husband, but that doesn’t stop him from launching one last attack–only this time, Liz fights back and wins. However, in the moment, she feels as though someone else entered her body and controlled her actions. She continues to have episodes where it’s almost as if a second consciousness has entered her mind, taking control of her body and driven mostly by rage. Day by day Liz becomes more and more unsettled by what she thinks is a coping mechanism created by her own brain, but turns out to be a lot more sinister.
At the same time, a young girl named Fran is the survivor of a kidnapping. It’s ten years after her trauma and she still has vivid hallucinations, including one of a fox companion named Lady Jinx who acts as her dearest friend and protector. Along with hallucinations, Fran is missing a lot of memories. Determined to uncover the truth about what happened to her and overcome her trauma, Fran decides to go digging into the story of her kidnapping and the man who did it.
Eventually Fran and Liz’s stories intersect. Fran and Liz both go to the same psychologist, and then Fran becomes friends with Liz’s son Zac. Soon enough it is clear that it’s up to Fran to save Liz and her family from the violent interloper who threatens them.
This is a poignant and unsettling book about the nature of self, the aftermath of domestic violence, mental illness, and the possibilities of parallel universes and different realities. It’s also about love and loyalty and friendship. Carey’s writing is vivid and compelling, and he’s got a real way with his characters’ voices. This is a supernatural thriller, but one that’s firmly grounded in a story about family and love.
If you enjoyed Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, you’ll probably like this one, too. I’d also suggest Jennifer McMahon’s The Night Sisters or All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage.
After being beaten nearly to death in a robbery, Toby heads to Ivy House, the old family manse, where his uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer. Toby’s always considered himself a very fortunate guy, until the attack and his less than full recovery afterward. While he’s trying to heal at Ivy House as well as care for his uncle, a human skull is found in an elm tree on the property.
Of course a whole skeleton follows, which brings the detectives calling. Whose body is it? How did it get there? Toby, caring for Hugo and not having the greatest memory after the attack, tries to answer these questions as best he can–both for himself and for the detective who seems to have Toby on the list of suspects.
French’s writing is lavishly detailed and so finely wrought you want to savor every sentence. The story is atmospheric and compelling, and the characters are all well-developed and authentic. There’s still an element of crime fiction in this stand-alone, but it takes a backseat to a story of identity and family. It’s also fun to see the other side of the usual stories French writes, which focus on the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad and their investigations. Here we’re with Toby the whole time as he tries to piece together his recollections and make sense of the present.
I really enjoyed the relationship between Toby and his cousins, Leon and Susanna. They grew up together, almost like siblings, and their bond is clear, in all its complexity and history. A lot of their relationship relies on memory now, and memory is a big theme in the novel–how people experience and thus remember things very differently, including relationships.
If you enjoyed French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, definitely check this one out–it’s not a crime novel, as I said, so you might miss that, but everything else great about French’s work is on display here. Fans of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson who haven’t tried French yet certainly should as well.
There’s a very old-fashioned feel to this psychological thriller. In style and tone Bitter Orange reads a bit like Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson. The writing is elegant and the mystery a hook from the get-go. The perfect book to curl up with on a December evening!
Frances Jellico, elderly and nearing death, recalls the summer of 1969 in an old country mansion in England. That summer she was at Lyntons to study the garden’s architecture. A couple named Cara and Peter have taken the rooms below hers. Soon Frances befriends the young couple, only to find that there’s a lot more to both of them than they let on.
Fran, middle-aged and lonely and clearly with a lot of emotional baggage, is giddy to have friends. Cara, strange and beautiful, finds an easy audience for her fantastic and romantic stories in Frances. And Peter soon becomes the object of a crush. I like how, as the story continues, it becomes clear that Fran is hiding something. You begin to question exactly how reliable a narrator she is.
The back and forth of the narrative adds to the tension. You’re aware as you’re reading that some sort of calamity is going to happen, and that Fran is actively hiding details. It’s the bomb under the table sort of suspense.
Fuller’s writing is incredibly rich. She sets a lovely scene, and her descriptions are wonderfully immersive and evocative. There’s a touch of the Gothic here, too, with the dark and sinister secrets and things going bump in the night at Lyntons.
If you liked The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud for the narrator and tone, give this book a look! The Talented Mr. Ripley fans might find a lot to like here, too, as well as those who liked The Haunting of Hill House.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Dwight Garner, in his New York Times review of Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World, described her writing as being “like watching someone grin with a mouthful of blood.” That’s too perfect a description for me to top. This novel is about a young woman who decides she’s going to check out of society and hibernate for a year–and she does so with the help of dozens of different medications, planning to never spend more than a few hours at a time awake. The story follows that year, and fills in some background, all while showcasing Moshfegh’s compellingly disturbing style and black humor. She likes to get under the skin, and to get into the raw physicality of her descriptions. These characters aren’t likable at all, but they’re sure morbidly fascinating!
There’s something about this novel that reminds me of S.J. Perelman’s The Swiss Family Perelman and Westward Ha!. It might be the deadpan absurdity, or the quirky characters, or the witty and sometimes twisty turns of phrase. Probably all of that.
French Exit is about Frances, a wealthy woman in her sixties who is bankrupted after her husband’s death. She and her deadbeat adult son Malcolm decide to move to Paris to live in a friend’s apartment. They bring along their cat, Small Frank, and set out for Europe.
The characters are nuts in the best way, the way that recalls screwball 1930’s comedy. Frances is absurd and not very nice at all, a wealthy beauty who truly enjoys running from “one brightly burning disaster to the next.” Malcolm is next to useless, a sad and self-centered manchild who manages to evoke a little pity, given his parents. And the cat is not just a cat–he’s the vessel for Frances’ late husband’s soul. Once the family gets to Europe, even more oddballs are added to the mix as Frances plans her grand exit.
French Exit is a quick and entertaining novel full of sharp observations and wit, humor and depth, incredibly quirky characters and situations, and some surprising turns.