Books We Loved, Oct. 2023
Summer has now definitively changed to fall, and as the days shorten and the weather turns cold and rainy, perhaps it’s fitting that all three of the books we loved this month focus on family—human and feline—and the complex ways in which we interact with those who mean the most to us. If you like rich characters and novels that avoid simple answers, you can’t go wrong with the picks listed here.
Hiro Arikawa, The Goodbye Cat (Berkley, 2023)
This collection of short stories by the author of The Travelling Cat Chronicles is simultaneously sweet, charming, beautiful, and heart-wrenching. Set in contemporary Japan, each of the seven tales follows the life of a kitten and the family that takes it in. Three reflect the cat’s point of view; the others explore family relationships that are revealed or resolved by the cat’s presence. If you love cats and search for novels that will make you cry, this is definitely a collection for you. In no more than 10 or 20 pages (the entire book runs to 150), Arikawa takes you from the perspective of an abandoned kitten to that cat’s final moments. Even I—and I don’t usually seek out novels that make me sob—am tearing up as I write this review.
To avoid spoilers, I’ll give the briefest summary of the individual stories. The first, which shares its name with the book, centers around Kota, a cat found in an alley before his eyes even open but determined to live long enough to transform into a nekomata, a spirit who can remain with his human forever. “Bringing Up Baby” traces a manga artist’s attempts to become a better father to his newborn by learning to care for a kitten. The next two stories also explore variations on fatherhood—a man who pretends not to care and a young boy trying to form a bond with his new stepmother while visiting an island populated by feral cats. “The Night Visitor” is pure comedy, a situation familiar to any cat owner. The last two are linked by the character Satoru, who loses one cat in “Finding Hachi” and is trying to re-locate another when we encounter him again in “Life Is Not Always Kind.” These last two, like the first, are related by the cat in ways that a reader can readily imagine as reflecting a cat’s perspective. They are both lovely and sad.
Last but not least, a shout-out to the translator, Philip Gabriel. The contribution of good translators is often under-appreciated, but the ability to find just the right words and concepts to convey another author’s meaning in a different language is a genuine skill and deserves acclaim. When well done, the result is seamless—as this is. Bravo!—CPL
Liane Moriarty, Apples Never Fall (Henry Holt, 2021)
Apples Never Fall is my first Liane Moriarty book, and I enjoyed it very much. Moriarty is a master craftsman at introducing suspense and setting up character. She uses the classic set-up of “it was just another day” and then the stranger rode into town. Instead of a mounted gunslinger with a sombrero and an attitude, the disruptive influence is a slight young woman, a victim of domestic abuse who just happened to wander into the house of the central characters—an elderly married couple, Joy and Stan Delaney. After closing their successful tennis academy, and with the eldest of their four children already forty, Joy and Stan are feeling a lull in their marriage. For Joy, taking care of the frail girl, such a contrast to her own sturdy tall adult children, feels fulfilling. Stan is more suspicious by nature but finds no concrete grounds to object as Savannah begins to cook delicious dinners for the couple and further insinuates herself into their life.
The novel opens at a later point in time, when Joy is missing from home. Her last communication was a garbled phone message, which made no sense. The four Delaney siblings know she doesn’t wear her reading glasses, and auto-correct changes the misspelled words she types, so at first, they’re not alarmed. After a week, they’re having second thoughts and wondering why Stan appears to be strangely stoic about her absence. Their parents’ marriage seemed good, but as it turns out, Joy’s internet searches have included “How do you know when it’s time to divorce,” and “Divorcing after 60.” The detectives suspect Stan of foul play, but they also want to know more about Savannah, who has moved out after a prolonged stay.
The family alliances and loyalties of Amy, the oldest daughter, a kooky drifter; Troy, a successful executive; Logan, a passive community college teacher; and Brooke, the serious youngest, provide a kaleidoscope of perspectives on Stan and Joy, as well as the mysterious Savannah.—GM
Ann Patchett, Tom Lake (Harper, 2023)
Most parents don’t tell their children too much about the lives they led before they ever started a family. The humorous and embarrassing stuff usually finds its way out anyway, over the course of years of family gatherings. And by the time the kids are old enough to hear the really juicy stuff, they are out in the world having experiences they may intend to keep under wraps themselves.
But the setting in Ann Patchett’s newest novel—picking season on a cherry orchard in the time of COVID—is the perfect background for secret telling: because of the pandemic, the orchard support staff is not around. Lara and Joe, who own and run the orchard, must rely on the help of their three twenty-something daughters, two of whom would be off the farm and living their own lives, again, if not for the pandemic. The girls have always known their mom was once an actor on her way to fame and fortune. They also know she once had a fling with a fellow actor (Duke), who did go on to become famous. What they want to know now that the family is living in a COVID bubble is: What was it like to be almost famous? To be in love with someone like Duke? And why did Lara abandon her acting career for a cherry orchard anyway?
Lara tells her daughters the story of her past, not all at once but a little each day as she and her daughters pick cherries. Her long-ago dramas blend in sweetly with the dramas that are happening in the present: Maise, the middle daughter and a veterinary student, is called away at times to help with farm animals in distress on neighboring farms; Emily, the oldest, who plans to marry the young man from a neighboring farm and run the orchard with him as her parents age, is made to explain why she and Benny don’t want to have children. The rhythm of the past and present, along with Patchett’s narrative voice, makes for a most pleasant reading experience, like the back-and-forth movement of a front porch rocker.
There are two plays that illuminate this novel too. Lara’s acting career begins when she has the opportunity to star in a high school version of Our Town (Thornton Wilder, 1938), the first of multiple times she will play Emily in this famous “all American” play. The other play is The Cherry Orchard (Anton Chekhov, 1903), and not just because of the setting. The Russian play, which is ostensibly about land ownership issues, mirrors the real-world problem in Chekhov’s time: his country was undergoing a dramatic shift between the old traditional ways and more modern systems. Likewise, Tom Lake is emblematic of our own current tensions, between what is and might happen in the future. Patchett doesn’t hit you over the head with these concerns. She’s subtle, but she does work it in. And it does stick. Tom Lake is a beautiful, unrushed, multilayered read that will stay with you well after the last page is read.—JS