The new year hits the ground running with several excellent books publishing on January 4.
To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara’s long-awaited follow up to her 2015 epic, A Little Life, may be getting most of the attention, but the four books that are really worth your while are Thrity Umrigar’s Honor (Algonquin Books), Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers (Simon & Schuster), Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming (Flatiron Books), and Carla Guelfenbein’s One in Me I Never Loved (Other Press).
Honor is the story of Indian American journalist Smita Agarwal, who returns to the city her family left 20 years earlier to write about a Hindu-Muslim marriage that led to an honor killing. She finds herself entangled in the life of the Hindu wife – recovering from burns suffered in the fire that killed her husband — and the village that has ostracized her. It’s a journey back in time to her childhood in a country divided by religion and economics and the crisis that led her family to flee to the U.S. Thrity Umrigar covers a lot of ground in this compassionate exploration of love, family, friendship, and faith.
The School for Good Mothers is a dystopian novel in which a mother’s error in judgment is viewed as child abuse or neglect. Frida Liu has one very bad day that leads to Child Protective Services taking custody of her baby. The family law judge offers her two choices: give up legal custody to her ex-husband or spend a year at The School for Good Mothers. If she passes the rigorous program, she will be reunited with her baby. What follows is infuriating and heartbreaking, as Frida attempts to survive the psychologically sadistic reeducation camp and return to her baby and her life. In her first novel, Jessamine Chan has taken the ridiculously high standards to which mothers are held in American society a step or two further to imagine “what if.” It’s a sobering and haunting read.
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Olga Dies Dreaming is another impressive debut. Set in 2017, it follows Olga, a wedding planner for wealthy New Yorkers, and her brother, Pedro, a local politician, as they negotiate their complicated lives. Their mother, Blanca, abandoned them for radical politics, leaving them to be raised by their grandmother, but their personal ambition and success has allowed them to bury family secrets. When Hurricane Maria brings devastation to Puerto Rico, Blanca reenters the picture. This is a smart, funny, and crisply written examination of the American Dream and what it means to be caught between two cultures.
In One in Me I Never Loved,Chilean novelist Carla Guelfenbein weaves the stories of several women in New York City into a thought-provoking short novel. At the center of the story is Margarita, who is turning 56 and struggling with marital issues. When Anne, the young concierge at Margarita’s apartment building, disappears, Margarita becomes obsessed with finding her. She also decides to help Juliana, an octogenarian who works at her favorite bakery, find the woman who changed the trajectory of her life decades earlier. Flashback chapters set in 1940s Manhattan, depict Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral’s years at Barnard College and her passionate relationship with Doris Dana, who became the executor of her estate. What seem like disparate narratives eventually come together in a satisfying exploration of women’s identities, desires, and decisions.