Books We Loved, May 2023
Updated: Sep 10
As the days continue to lengthen, temperatures rise, and lilacs, azaleas, and rhododendra displace the daffodils and tulips, we have three lively and thought-provoking novels for you to enjoy. A young woman who finds herself by designing a garden of her own, a reinvestigation of memory and the ways it is affected by changing mores, and a tight-knit group of sisters dealing with family trauma—there should be something here to occupy those lovely evenings and weekends. And check out Joan Schweighardt’s latest novel, Under the Blue Moon, due to release on June 20, 2023.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to look for Claudia H. Long’s latest family mystery, Our Lying Kin, published with Kasva Press. You can learn more about that from her author interview here on the blog, scheduled for later this month.
Ginny Kubitz Moyer, The Seeing Garden (She Writes Press, 2023)
Nineteen-year-old Catherine Ogden appears to have everything: youth, wealth, birth, breeding, and beauty. No one in New York high society is surprised when she attracts the attention of William Brandt, an up-and-coming business tycoon from California. It’s 1910, and the job of women like Catherine is to marry well and make their families proud.
After a visit to the Brandt estate near San Francisco, Catherine accepts William’s proposal of marriage. But is it William himself who appeals to her, or his house and gardens? As the wedding day draws closer, Catherine must decide whether to fulfill her own expectations of marriage or those of her family.
The author’s descriptions of the northern California landscape and its effect on Catherine are exquisite. The Seeing Garden is a perfect fit for this time of year, when everything is bursting into flower.—CPL
Rebecca Makkai, I Have Some Questions for You (Viking, 2023)
I Have Some Questions for You is not just an interrogation of various suspects in a supposedly solved murder, it’s also an interrogation of memory, and how the perceptions and feelings associated with memories change under the influence of current social trends.
The book concerns the murder of popular, pretty Thalia at Granby, a boarding school. The event took place decades ago—when our protagonist, Bodie Kane, was an outsider at prep school, paired with Thalia as a roommate. Thalia, while not a friend, was at least kind and polite—unlike others in her circle, who laughed at Bodie and started rumors about her.
Bodie, now a successful film professor and podcaster about true crime, has put that particular murder out of her mind. After all, it was solved. Omar, who worked at Granby as a trainer, confessed to pushing Thalia against a wall, accidentally killing her, and then throwing her body in the pool to try to hide his crime.
Is that narrative true? When Bodie returns to Granby to teach a podcasting class, her students are interested in reviewing the case. Was Omar, a Black man, a convenient outsider to blame? Could it have been a teacher who seemed close to Thalia? Or perhaps another student?
As Bodie considers these questions, she also takes another look at social norms, which have changed since her time as a student. Behaviors that were acceptable then seem suspect now, symptoms of male domination and exploitation or subtle racism. Wealthy and thin, Thalia seemed favored by life, while Bodie trudged through school in a Goth cloud, but in the end, it was Thalia who became a victim of murder. As Bodie thinks through the list of possible perpetrators, her experience reporting true crimes presents her with many unpleasant scenarios.
As someone who attended boarding school myself, I felt like the characters and scenarios were realistic and well-drawn, and the story was tense. Yes, there’s no happy ending, but then I thought that would have been an easy opt-out.—GM
Ann Napolitano, Hello Beautiful (Dial, 2023)
Ann Napolitano, author of Dear Edward, has hit another one out of the park. Hello Beautiful starts off more quietly than Dear Edward, and it doesn’t have quite the scope, but before a reader knows it, she has fallen in love with every single character and there is not a chance in the world of putting the book down.
Hello Beautiful tells the story of four sisters, two of them twins, who grow up in Pilsen, a neighborhood in Chicago. They are as different as four siblings can be, and a heck of a lot more loving. Part of the beauty of the book is experiencing their great affection and respect for one another and for their parents. Then their father dies, and their mother turns her back on one of the twins when she becomes pregnant, and the oldest sister, Julia, the “rocket” of the family, marries and has a child with someone she believes she can shape into the man of her dreams. But William, a basketball player who grew up virtually unloved as a result of a family tragedy, can’t live up to his wife’s expectations and can’t bring himself to disappoint her by telling her so either. The pressure in their marriage—which is centerstage in the story—builds, then explodes, and when Julie leaves Pilsen, with their baby, to become a successful businesswoman in New York City, what is left of the tight-knit circle of love appears to be irredeemably shattered.
Napolitano shares with the great Anne Tyler a talent for crisp sentences, great dialogue, and stunning clarity—and, of course, the ability to tell a captivating story. Fans of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will be especially enthralled. In fact, the sisters, themselves Alcott fans, often discuss which one of the March girls each most resembles. This is a really great novel, the kind readers will ponder long after the last page. Dear Edward is now a series on Apple TV. Hopefully Hello Beautiful will have the same trajectory.—JS