OVER THE PAST few months, I’ve been doing a lot hanging out with the big kids—women over 40 who are writing un-put-down-able fiction. While the novels run the gamut from hilarious to serious, and from debut authors to seasoned pros, ranging in age from 41 to 67, their common trait is beautiful, assured writing. Some of the novels are brand new, others just newish, published in the past year or two and now in paperback for easy summer reading.
Here, in no particular order, are some recent favorites to recommend as you get ready for a vacation, or to crank up your air conditioner for some good at-home reading. In either case, you’ll be transported to a different world, one you may be reluctant to return from.
In Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour, you’ll journey back to a much less hip Brooklyn of an earlier era, to a neighborhood in which the Catholic Church runs the show. The story begins with the suicide of a young man, and follows his pregnant wife and, before long, their daughter, as they make their way through the years. It’s told by the daughter’s children, a challenging feat that few but McDermott could manage to pull off. Her magnifying-glass eye brings to light details so rich you’ll feel as though you’ve tumbled back in time with her. The characters will stay with you for a long time, particularly those nuns.
Jennifer Egan travels back to early-20th-century New York as well in her mesmerizing Manhattan Beach. Sometimes when I read a book of historical fiction I wonder whether the details are accurate, but with both McDermott and Egan, it never occurred to me to question them. Egan takes the reader not only into the Brooklyn Naval Yard during World War II, but under the water and into the world of gangsters as well, as she tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, the feisty daughter of a mysterious man who disappears, leaving his family and myriad questions behind.
To keep with the historical fiction theme, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which is on everyone’s list, is on mine as well. The reader will feel secure in Lee’s confident hands. The book follows a Korean family from the emigration of a young girl to Japan after a married man has gotten her pregnant, an event that informs not only her life, but the lives of her entire family. The book is incredibly well researched, and the stories of several generations of a Korean family beautifully rendered. I learned so much about aspects of a culture that weren’t in any of the history books I’ve read. The book is long and juicy, and you won’t want it to end.
It’s back to America, to the present-day south with Tayari Jones’s timely and heart-wrenching An American Marriage. The premise of the book is a terrible one—a young newly-wed man is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sent to jail for twelve years. Can we blame Celestial for turning to an old friend during this time? The situation and the characters are so complex, you might not be sure to who to cheer for, but you’ll care about them and how they find their way out of the unfathomable set of circumstances they have been thrown into.
Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, is another timely book, about a young woman whose life changes when she meets a prominent (sexy, fascinating) first-wave feminist. We accompany Greer Kadetsky from high school to adulthood, as she deals with questions of power, ambition, betrayal and love. The book is a delight, filled with Wolitzer’s trademark insight and humor.
To continue on the funny track, I was late in coming to Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, but I’m nearly glad I didn’t read it when it first came out since it gave me the chance to read it for the first time this year. If you’re looking for a book about a family more dysfunctional than yours, this is your book. The four Plumb siblings are waiting for a jointly-held trust fund to become available to them when one of the siblings depletes it, much to the fury of the others, who have been counting on their share. Sweeney is smart and funny and deftly handles a big cast of characters–infuriating and endearing by turn–as they try to find their way out of a seemingly impossible situation.
Speaking of dysfunctional families…Jade Chang’s The Wangs Vs. the World is possibly the funniest road-trip book I’ve ever read. At first I had little sympathy for this super-wealthy family that has hit bottom, but I found myself growing fond of them as the book went on, even as I was laughing out loud at their crazy antics. Chang, too, has several narrators—including the family car. Really. The family car!
So that’s what I’ve been reading. How about you? Do you have any books by women over forty to recommend? My stack of books to read is high, but I never want to stop adding to it.
Julie Langsdorf’s first novel, White Elephant, was published by HarperCollins Ecco in spring 2019. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @Julielangsdorf. For news and upcoming events, sign up for her mailing list at www.Julielangsdorf.com.
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