Best Book Club Books for May: Emma Straub, Roxane Gay, and More
Have your canvas totes ready: Beach-read season is just around the bend, and, this month, authors ranging from Michael Cunningham to Emma Straub are giving us touching, gripping stories perfect for a lazy day in the sun. From a drama-filled family vacation to Mallorca to an existential comedy about identity theft, these provocative books kick off the summer reading season with big ideas and entertainment.
Losing our religion?
No, this book is not an adult retelling of Frozen, although Michael Cunningham may benefit from shopper confusion. Instead of two sisters, The Snow Queen gives us the story of two brothers: lovelorn Barrett, who, after a supernatural sighting in Central Park, begins to turn to religion; and Tyler, a struggling Bushwick-residing musician who, on the cusp of marrying his ill fiancé, turns to the relief of drugs.
If the set-up seems precariously ethereal, remember that Mr. Cunningham’s most famous novel, The Hours, was something of an out-on-a-limb narrative experiment, too. Like that novel, The Snow Queen is sure to stir up conversation. Book clubs will enjoy discussing the book’s fantastical elements, as well as the issues of religion, spirituality, and personal salvation it addresses.
Pain and persistence in Port-au-Prince
Roxane Gay has won many fans with her essays on gender, race, the Internet, and pop culture. Her debut novel, An Untamed State, is likely to inspire essays from others. It’s the story of Mireille Duval Jameson, a wife, mother, and daughter of a wealthy Haitian, who is captured by a gang of heavily armed men and held for ransom.
As the novel moves from the hostage situation to its aftermath, Gay explores the ways in which trauma, even after its conclusion, can leave indelible marks on an individual and their family. As Kirkus pointed out, the novel’s characters are “engineered to open up conflicts over gender, class… and race,” making it a perfect choice for book clubs seeking to join important discussions.
Park Ave Swiss Family Robinson
In Emma Straub’s The Vactioners (the title, cover, and subject matter of which all scream “beach read”) a family of Manhattanites—anniversary-celebrating Franny and Jim, and their high-school-graduating daughter Sylvia—heads to exotic Mallorca, a land of “mountains and beaches” and “tapas and tennis courts,” for a two-week vacation.
Unfortunately, with extended friends and family in tow, the island setting proves not to be an escape but a kind of gossipy prison, and, before the vacation is through, a host of painful family secrets and betrayals will rise to the surface like bubbles from a snorkel. Book clubs who enjoyed Straub’s 2012 novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures shouldn’t hesitate before diving in.
Are you who I think I am?
Joshua Ferris’ 2008 breakout novel, Then We Came to the End, used the numbing humdrum of office life to explore issues of work, individuality, and modern malaise. His latest, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, makes use of a subject familiar to anyone who changed passwords in the wake of Heartbleed or still monitors checking accounts after shopping at Target.
Identity theft becomes a source of both comedy and moral inquiry for Ferris, as he tells the story of a contradiction-riddled man, Paul O’Rourke, who one day discovers that someone has begun creating various web presences using his name. The worst part? The fake Paul O’Rourke may be better than the real one. To the extent that it raises questions about the alienating effects of technology and the fragmentation of self in the Internet age, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is guaranteed to provoke hot discussions.
You can't get away from the getaway
Why do we insist on vacationing in groups? Have we not learned, from novels and movies, that trips have a way of bringing the extremes of our personalities, as well as our long-suppressed jealousies and longings, to light? Wouldn’t we be better off taking to the seaside alone? Julia Fierro's novel Cutting Teeth is a textbook example of a summer getaway among friends turned sour.
Fortunately, on this sojourn, we readers get to play flies on the wall, while the characters—OCD-suffering Nicole, her passive husband Rip, would-be artist Allie, and WASPy, bankruptcy-bound Leigh—are forced to duke it out within the confines of their Long Island beach house. Book clubs will enjoy recounting all the drama that goes on in this literary reality show, as well as the issues of family, class, adulthood, and sex that materialize.
Hitting the road one last time
A middle-aged female rockstar refuses to go gentle into that good night in Stacey D’Erasmo’s latest novel, Wonderland. Forty-four and near-invisible on the indie music scene, Anna Brundage decides, with money earned from the sale of a family heirloom, to give stardom one last shot.
Her experience on the road is a trip down memory lane, in ways both good (she experiences again the ecstasy of performing on stage) and bad (she fails to refuse the lure of sex with strangers). It’s rare to find a novel about a woman hurtling uncertainly toward old age, and book clubs will appreciate the insight in unconventional womanhood Wonderland offers.
Grief and secrets in mountain country
If you liked The Descendants (we mean the book, but the movie with George Clooney works, too), Kaui Kart Hemmings’ latest, The Possibilities, won’t disappoint. Once again, the author transports readers to a gorgeous setting (this time, instead of Hawaii, it’s ski-town Colorado) and zeroes in on a protagonist racked by grief.
After losing her 22-year-old son to a ski accident, Sarah St. John is struggling to resume ordinary life, despite the encouragements of her QVC-loving father and mid-divorce best friend. It’s only when a mysterious girl shows up on her doorstep that Sarah begins to emerge from her grief—but then, this girl has a secret, and it’s a big one. Book clubs will be touched by the story of mourning and the redemptive powers of memory.
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