Books We Loved, Sep. 2022
The easing of summer into fall sounds a bittersweet note, and our current picks reflect that shift. From the first novel by Anthony Doerr, whose recent Cloud Cuckoo Land follows with acclaim his All the Light You Cannot See, to a nostalgic pair of novels treasuring the end of summer and a mystery novel set in Gilded Age New York that is less about whodunnit than why and how to prove the case, we offer an array of delightful reads to shift you gently from long, lazy days to falling leaves and the arrival of pumpkin spice.
Anthony Doerr, About Grace (Scribner, 2004)
The assumption, among some readers, is that if an author has a breakout award-winning, best-selling novel (such as All the Light You Cannot See), fans should wait to see what comes next rather than risk disappointment by backtracking to what came before. With Anthony Doerr, you’re safe heading in either direction. Cloud Cuckoo Land, Doerr’s most recent novel, is a miracle of a read. And so is About Grace, published some twenty years earlier, when he was only thirty.
About Grace’s protagonist is David Winkler, who grows up in Anchorage, obsessed from childhood with the many different forms water can take, particularly snow, which leads him eventually to a Ph.D. in hydrology. He also grows up with an ability to see things before they happen. Often it isn’t until he’s watching an event unfold that he remembers he previously dreamed it. A hatbox flying through the air alerts him to a dream about a man being hit by a bus. The hatbox flies; the man gets hit. He’s on hand, but there’s not enough time for him to act.
When David, who mostly lacks social skills, sees a woman standing at a supermarket magazine rack, he knows at once that she will drop the magazine she’s holding—because she did so in a dream. And as awkward as he is, her appearance in real time feels so very significant that he rushes forward to pick the magazine up and attempts to make her acquaintance. All he gets before she leaves the store is a thank you, but that deters him not at all. Thereafter he makes it his business to find out where she works and where she lives. And even though it turns out that she is (more or less unhappily) married, he pursues her. Eventually she succumbs, and in time they run away together, to Ohio, and have a child: Grace.
The trouble begins when David dreams that his beloved infant daughter will die in a flood as he is trying to save her. When the rains begin, the only thing he can think to do is to run away. If he isn’t there to try to save her, the dream can’t play itself out. Unsure whether either his wife, who has by then lost all patience with him, or Grace survives the catastrophic event, he runs so far he eventually finds himself on an island in the Caribbean, but the family there that keeps him from starvation (and other displays of extreme self-neglect) has a young daughter. And in time he begins to have a dream that involves her. It is only after he sees the real-time manifestation of this potentially tragic dream through to the end that he is able, twenty-five years after leaving home and family, to return to see what remains of his life.
About Grace is a beautiful story about grief and longing and the tension between verifiable science and inexplicable foreknowledge. It’s written, like everything Doerr writes, with love, wisdom, and just enough literary excess to make it totally unforgettable.—JS
Melody Grace, Summer in Sweetbriar Cove
(Melody Grace Books, 2021)
A fictional small town on Cape Cod is the perfect place to while away summer’s last lazy days. Summer in Sweetbriar Cove, which includes the first two books of Melody Grace’s extensive Sweetbriar Cove series, combines friendship and romance into a charming and bubbly escape.
In Meant to Be, romance author Poppy, having left her fiancé at the altar, chooses her aunt’s beach house as her hiding spot until everything blows over (and until she overcomes the writer’s block her agent doesn’t know about). She has no plans to stay long, and once she discovers that her next-door neighbor Cooper and the renovations he’s doing on his house are destroying her peace and quiet, she’s even more anxious to finish her novel and get back to her life in New York. But soon she finds herself more enthralled with Cooper than annoyed by him, and their budding romance fuels inspiration for her writing. If they can just figure out how to stop letting past heartaches affect their chances for future happiness, Poppy might finally finish her book—and find a happily-ever-after worthy of one of her novels.
In All for You, pastry chef Summer leaves her hectic life and her job in an NYC restaurant to open her dream bakery in Sweetbriar Cove. But her grumpy British landlord, Grayson, is an unnecessary distraction. Having learned the hard way that a woman can turn your whole world upside down, Grayson wants nothing more than to distance himself from his appealing new tenant, but she (and her baked goods) can’t be ignored. If he can break down the wall he’s built around himself, and if Summer can overcome the disaster of her bakery’s grand opening, she might find a reason to stick around.—CJH
Rosemary Simpson, What the Dead Leave Behind
(Kensington Books, 2017)
I stumbled onto Simpson’s Gilded Age Mystery series with book 7, Death at the Falls, due out around Thanksgiving. When, perhaps in preparation for that release, several earlier e-books in the series went on sale, I grabbed the chance to find out how the partnership between former Pinkerton detective Geoffrey Hunter and New York City heiress Prudence MacKenzie got its start.
This first novel, set among Manhattan high society—a group known as the Four Hundred—opens with Prudence at the lowest point in her life. Her beloved father, a highly respected judge, has died, leaving her in the hands of a stepmother whom Prudence neither respects nor trusts and that stepmother’s creepy brother. A well-intentioned but misguided doctor has prescribed laudanum, a drug that the stepmother takes every opportunity to pour down Prudence’s throat. Our heroine can barely remember the events of the last few months, and as she struggles to free herself from her addiction to the drug, she pins her hopes on a rescue from outside—specifically marriage to Charles Linwood, a man she admires but does not love. All this is very believable for an upper-class young woman of the time.
Prudence sees her escape route abruptly cut off when Linwood dies during the Great Blizzard of 1888. The authorities rule his death, one of hundreds, an accident. Only the young man’s closest friend, the enigmatic lawyer and former Pinkerton detective Geoffrey Hunter, believes that foul play may have contributed to Linwood’s untimely demise. After all, Linwood died with an ace of spades in his hand, their mutually agreed-upon cry for help. The possibility of murder sparks a fire in Prudence, who becomes determined to find out what happened and protect herself from those who wish her harm.
What appeals to me about this mystery is that it is not a simple whodunnit. The real quest is to untangle a complicated legal situation, which involves diving into the past of various characters to figure out how they came to be in the position they occupy at the beginning of the story and what they might have been trying to accomplish by preventing Linwood’s marriage to Prudence. Best of all is warming up to Prudence herself as she sheds her initial passivity and allows her true personality and intelligence to emerge.—CPL