by Jo Keroes
I’ve just glanced back and noticed that I’ve begun my last few reviews in a kind of cranky mood. Not this one. It’s summer, after all. Now I’m not assuming that summer leaves you with any more time to read than you have at any other time. But this season can make us think it’s ok to grab – ok, to sneak an hour to sit back with a good novel just because we want to. So here’s a list of a few good novels that feature interesting women. Not all of these are hot off the presses; some have been around for a while. And not every character is conventionally likable. But each of these books offers the company of a female character worth those stolen hours.
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s a series of stories linked by the appearance of a retired school teacher named Olive Kitteridge. Not the world’s most warm and cuddly mother or congenial neighbor, Olive is cantankerous and sometimes even mean to her outgoing husband and her beleaguered son, but as her town, Crosby, Maine, and the people who live there struggle and change and grow, so does Olive herself. Just as Crosby stands in for a wider world, there’s a little of Olive, good and not so, in all of us. This is a terrific book, warm and wise and a pleasure to read. (Strout’s other novels, Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me are also wonderful.)
In the Woods by Tana French. This mystery features Cassie Maddox who, along with her partner Rob Ryan, investigates the murder of a young girl in a small Dublin neighborhood. Not just an ordinary, well-plotted police procedural, this novel probes deeply into its characters. It turns out that when he was a child, Ryan himself escaped a horrific crime in the same neighborhood. How that affects his relationship with the canny and independent Cassie and their pursuit of the truth turns this into a complex psychological thriller as well as a compelling whodunit.
Away, by Amy Bloom. What can I say? This is simply a fabulous novel. It tracks the odyssey of Lillian Leyb, a young Russian seamstress whose family is wiped out in a pogrom and who comes alone to America to make her way. She does that, becoming the mistress (a word that should be outlawed in contemporary discourse but applies here since it’s the nineteen twenties) to an impresario of the New York Yiddish theater and his son. When her jealous cousin tells Lillian that Lillian’s baby daughter, Sophie, actually survived the massacre, Lillian sets out to find her – on a trek westward that moves her across the country as far as Alaska and to Siberia. We accompany her as she moves on, encountering people and situations that test her endurance but never her resolve. She’s gutsy and strong and wide open to the world. If all this sounds a bit too earnest, never fear. Bloom is a terrific writer, funny and lyrical and very very smart about the human condition. As well as being wise and funny and beautifully written, Away is a page turner. If you’ve never read Amy Bloom, do it now. (Check out her other books, Love Invents Us, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, and Come to Me.)