Must-Read Fiction Preview: Best Books for Fall 2013
This fall's crop of must-read fiction includes a bountiful array of stories: novels set in China, India, London, San Francisco and New York; two exciting debuts by Australian writers; stories from authors who've received the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer and more; hotly anticipated titles from book-club favorites including Jhumpa Lahiri, Elizabeth Gilbert and Wally Lamb; triumphant returns from reclusive legends Donna Tartt and Thomas Pynchon; stories of revolutions both political and scientific; hilarious novels about misfired relationships and tomes that grapple with the meaning of life in the past and present.
It's been a long wait for fans of Donna Tartt's cult classic, "The Secret History," and her second novel, "The Little Friend"--more than a decade has separated each of the rarely seen author's novels. Finally, patient readers will be rewarded this October with "The Goldfinch," a story of a boy in New York whose mother is killed in a tragic accident; years later, his only memento of her--a painting of a goldfinch--draws him into the art underworld. With her trademark intrigue, Tartt's novel blends the New York of J.D. Salinger's fiction with that of Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children," plus a dash of Peter Carey's "Theft."
Over a kaleidoscopic career in novels including "Gun, With Occasional Music," "Motherless Brooklyn," "The Fortress of Solitude" and "Chronic City," Jonathan Lethem has employed elements of sci-fi, noir, detective fiction, westerns and comic books, without settling within any single genre. In his new novel, "Dissident Gardens," Lethem turns out a realist family saga: The book follows two women in Queens, NY--Rose Zimmer and her daughter, Miriam--who are involved in revolutionary politics, from McCarthy-era Communism, to the Civil Rights movement, to the "free love" '60s and '70s through to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. More than a book about political radicalism, Lethem's novel is a story of passion, rebellion and family.
It's been 50 years since the famously hermetic postmodern author Thomas Pynchon introduced us to Benny Profane and his ragtag gang of New York bohemians in his first novel, "V." Half a century later with "Bleeding Edge," Pynchon returns to New York in 2001, the period between two calamities--the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the fall of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. The city Pynchon depicts--full of glass towers, money and misused power--has greatly evolved since the days of the Beats. Maxine Tarnow is a fraud investigator on the Upper West Side looking into the financial shenanigans of a computer security firm and its billionaire CEO. In Pynchonesque fashion, a chaotic world roils just under the surface, one full of drug runners, hackers, self-styled mobsters, tech geeks and murder.
Readers who fell in love with Jonathan Miles' hilarious 2008 debut novel, "Dear American Airlines"--written in the form of a haranguing letter from a frustrated air traveler--are in for a significant change of course. Miles' second novel, "Want Not," is larger in scope and presents a frightening thesis: We are what we throw away. Its characters--a freegan couple living off the grid and dumpster diving in New York, a New Jersey debt-collection magnate, a man in a mid-life crisis conscripted in the fight against nuclear waste--come face to face with the dark sides of our consumer culture.
In her books "Interpreter of Maladies," "The Namesake" and "Unaccustomed Earth," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri has explored the sometimes dissonant merging of cultures for characters torn between tradition and their adopted realities. Her newest book, "The Lowland," tells the story of two brothers in Calcutta--one is drawn to the revolutionary Naxalite movement aimed at eliminating class poverty; the other leaves to follow quieter, scientific pursuits in America. When one brother risks everything for his political beliefs, the other must return to India to piece back together their family.
Amy Tan was a relative latecomer to writing, but she certainly hit the ground running: Tan started her first fiction project when she was 33, published her first book, "The Joy Luck Club," four years later in 1989 and became an international sensation shortly thereafter. Her seventh novel, "The Valley of Amazement," follows the teenage, half-Chinese daughter of an American madame in Shanghai's most exclusive courtesan house. In the aftermath of the fall of the Ching dynasty in 1912, Violet and her mother, Lucia, are separated, and Violet is forced to become a "virgin courtesan." Tan also takes us back to 1890s San Francisco, when Lucia was a teenager herself, falling in love with a Chinese painter. Spanning decades and continents, "The Valley of Amazement" tells a story of desire, family and independence.
The bestselling author of the memoirs "Eat, Pray, Love" and "Committed," as well as a biography, "The Last American Man," a novel, "Stern Men," and a short-story collection, "Pilgrims," turns to historical fiction with "The Signature of All Things." Spanning the 18th and 19th centuries, from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution. Elizabeth Gilbert's novel stars a woman ahead of her time both in ambition and in scientific curiosity. The daughter of a botanical explorer, Alma Whittaker falls in love with Ambrose Pike, a spiritual, Utopian artist. Both chase the same discovery: the inner workings of life.
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 and the Man Booker Prize twice--in 1983 for "Life & Times of Michael K" and in 1999 for "Disgrace"--J.M. Coetzee has set most of his books in his native South Africa and in his adopted country of Australia. He has also inhabited the plots of other novels--retelling "Robinson Crusoe" in "Foe"--and the lives of other novelists--Fyodor Dostoevsky is the protagonist of "The Master of Petersburg." In his new book, "The Childhood of Jesus," Coetzee enters territory both familiar and strange: A man and a young boy arrive by boat in a new country that could be Spain, the boy searching for his mother, whom he's never met. Written in Coetzee's crystalline prose, the story may be a retelling of the life of the biblical Jesus--but the author leaves it to the reader to decide where fiction and allegory meet.
The first novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane opens with a harrowing visitor to the home of a widow named Ruth: a tiger. She can hear it--"loud and wet, with a low, guttural breathing hum"--but by daybreak, the beast is gone. Soon after, a woman named Frida arrives at Ruth's doorstep and announces that she was sent by the government to be Ruth's caretaker. Increasingly uncertain of the boundaries between reality, her dreams and her memories, Ruth cannot easily accept this stranger into her home, and still hears the tiger padding through her halls at night. With echoes of the perspective-shifting novels of Iris Murdoch, "The Night Guest" is a haunting tale of aging and independence.
Another noteworthy debut novel by an Australian writer, Graeme Simsion's "The Rosie Project" also depicts someone whose perceptions differ from those of others. Don Tillman is an intensely socially awkward genetics professor who's never been on a second date. A determined scientific thinker--and probably somewhere on the Autism spectrum--Don decides to employ mathematical methods to locate the perfect partner. But the female he finds--or rather the one who finds him--is not the one he projected: Rosie Jarman is a fiery and impetuous woman who wants Don to help her find her biological father. Like "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" told as a madcap, bittersweet love story, "The Rosie Project" sends up how hopeless we can be at finding love, despite our best efforts.
11.We Are Water
Author Wally Lamb has the distinction of being twice selected for Oprah's Book Club--for his 1992 novel, "She's Come Undone," and again for his 1998 book, "I Know This Much is True." His fifth novel, "We Are Water," is also sure to generate discussion: After 27 years of marriage to her husband, artist Annie Oh shocks her family by falling in love with a wealthy art dealer named Viveca. At one point, Annie's ex-husband, Orion, explains to their son that people are like water: fluid and flexible, yet also potentially destructive. Lamb plays with the liquid nature of relationships in the two events that bookend the novel: Annie's marriage to Viveca, and the flood that tore through her Connecticut town 45 years earlier.
From the author of the hilarious bestselling sensations, "Bridget Jones' Diary" and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" comes the third novel starring Helen Fielding's hopeful but hapless heroine. Now a bit older and--hopefully--wiser, Bridget faces a new set of pressures confronting the modern urban woman: having skin as flawless as the models in glossy magazines, facing a ticking biological clock and staying true to yourself--whoever that might be. As Bridget famously said in her diary, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces."
Honorable mentions: more fall novels to watch out for: