SHINING SEA deftly explores the life of an American family amid a half-century of social upheaval

Shining Sea  Anne Korkeakivi 2016

Shining Sea

By Anne Korkeakivi

Little, Brown & Company: Aug. 9, 2016

276 pages, $26.00


In only two novels, Anne Korkeakivi has become one of my favorite writers. Her debut, An Unexpected Guest, was an unexpected literary delight in 2013, a novel that managed to combine deep insight into characters and relationships, a surprising level of suspense, and supple, sensual prose into a stunner of a book. Much was made of the book’s re-vision of Virginia Woolf’s day-in-the-life classic, Mrs. Dalloway, butAn Unexpected Guest stood on its own two Ferragamo heels just fine.

Korkeakivi returns in August with a completely different sort of novel, a family saga set in varying locales ranging from California and Arizona to the UK and Africa and spanning the years between World War II and 2015. Across five “books” she immerses us in the life of the Gannon family, starting in 1962, when 43-year-old Michael Gannon, a WWII vet, suffers a fatal heart attack while painting the house. He leaves behind his beloved wife Barbara, four children, and an unborn baby girl. Death is the unexpected guest in Shining Sea, which explores the seemingly endless ripples Michael’s death — and war generally — causes in the following decades.

The story moves in leaps and bounds through the years, using key social events to shade in the context of the family members’ lives and effective flashbacks to fill in key details from the intervening years. Barbara holds both the family and the story together with her unfailingly generous spirit. We learn how she and Michael met in a California military hospital when she nursed him through his recovery from the Bataan death march in the Philippines. Their love undergirds the family and the story even long after Michael has died. Korkeakivi uses his death and that of two other characters in and shortly after the Vietnam War to explore the long-term effects of war and the grief experienced at the loss of loved ones.

Korkeakivi moves the plot across time and space as the story shifts focus from Barbara, who eventually remarries, to middle son Francis, a sensitive soul cast adrift by loss. We follow him to Woodstock, seven years after his father’s death, and later to London’s late 60s “groovy” scene and then to the Inner Hebrides islands off Scotland.

Rebellious older daughter Patty Ann struggles with the consequences of repeated poor judgment but gives her mother a grandson whom she adores and who provides light at the end of this often dark novel. Ultimately, the family is spread across the world, from the California coast to the desert of Phoenix (where Barbara’s life is reborn through her marriage to a good but surprisingly complex man), from Europe and Africa to a secluded farm in rural Massachusetts.

Shining Sea reminded me of a compressed version of Jane Smiley’s recent Hundred Years Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age). While the latter covers twice as much time, concerns many more characters, and is written with far more detail, Shining Sea has a similar impact. In particular, the novel surprised me with its emotional punch. I was skeptical that Korkeakivi could write a family saga with serious issues at its core in less than 300 pages, but to a large degree she has succeeded. I cared about the key characters (and still do, as they wander around in my mind). The plot is compelling, with mysteries at the heart of a few subplots, and her prose is seamless and elegant without calling attention to itself.

The key to the artistic success of Shining Sea is Korkeakivi’s ability to move the plot and develop her characters by implication; she displays a deft hand at knowing when to move quickly and allow the reader’s general knowledge to fill in the background and when to slow down and focus on the moments in the characters’ lives that will define them and affect us.

Shining Sea probes the unpredictable and often inexplicable nature of the lives we lead. Barbara gives voice to the novel’s theme when she says, “The thing about life is that it is so damned confusing. Such a web, each piece of it dependent on something else, something that can be as tiny as a smile from a stranger or as huge as heart disease. The good all tangled up with the bad.”

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Summer recommended reading: Four novels to help you defeat the dog days of August

Summer’s not over yet! Here are four books being published in August that you should investigate.


a-wife-of-noble-character

Yvonne Georgina Puig — A Wife of Noble Character (August 2)

Inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Puig’s debut novel is set among the wealthy Houston oil set. Vivienne Cally, now 30, is a big fish who has been swimming in these protected waters until she is challenged intellectually and emotionally by Preston Duffin, who has long known and admired Vivienne from a social and cultural distance. A recent architecture grad, he draws Vivienne’s interest, at which point matters become complicated. Puig’s pointed social commentary elevates A Wife of Noble Character beyond what might otherwise be a stock comedy of manners.

The Book That Matters Most

Ann Hood — The Book That Matters Most (August 9)

Hood, the author of An Italian Wife and The Red Thread and the recipient of awards for her writing on food, travel, and spirituality, this time out pens a tribute to the power of books to save us. When Ava’s 25-year marriage ends, she joins a book group for company. Assigned to share “the book that matters most” to her, she revisits a childhood favorite that helped her through the deaths of her mother and sister. The book, and her search for the obscure author, lead her to revelations that lead Ava and her daughter Maggie, struggling with romantic disillusionment in Paris, to rebuild their lives.

Shining Sea

Anne Korkeakivi — Shining Sea (August 9)

Korkeakivi demonstrates that a gifted author can tell an epic family saga in 300 pages, something about which I was initially skeptical. As in her debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, she writes beautifully and with compassion and insight into the relationships and events that shape our lives. Spend some time with the Gannon family and experience family and societal change and growth from 1962 to 2015 (with flashbacks to WWII). Shining Sea is like Jane Smiley’s Hundred Year Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, Golden Age) in one book.

Another Brooklyn

Jacqueline Woodson — Another Brooklyn (August 9)

Woodson, among our best YA writers for the past two decades (with many awards to her credit), moves into adult fiction with Another Brooklyn, which examines that time in one’s life when friendship and neighborhood are all. Woodson’s young protagonist, August, moves toward adulthood as she learns that there is another Brooklyn, the other, grimier, side of the shiny coin that is her childhood.

SHINING SEA deftly explores the life of an American family and a half-century of social upheaval

Shining Sea  Anne Korkeakivi 2016

Shining Sea

By Anne Korkeakivi

Little, Brown & Company: Aug. 9, 2016

276 pages, $26.00


In only two novels, Anne Korkeakivi has become one of my favorite writers. Her debut, An Unexpected Guest, was an unexpected literary delight in 2013, a novel that managed to combine deep insight into characters and relationships, a surprising level of suspense, and supple, sensual prose into a stunner of a book. Much was made of the book’s re-vision of Virginia Woolf’s day-in-the-life classic, Mrs. Dalloway, but An Unexpected Guest stood on its own two Ferragamo heels just fine.

Korkeakivi returns in August with a completely different sort of novel, a family saga set in varying locales ranging from California and Arizona to the UK and Africa and spanning the years between World War II and 2015. Across five “books” she immerses us in the life of the Gannon family, starting in 1962, when 43-year-old Michael Gannon, a WWII vet, suffers a fatal heart attack while painting the house. He leaves behind his beloved wife Barbara, four children, and an unborn baby girl. Death is the unexpected guest in Shining Sea, which explores the seemingly endless ripples Michael’s death — and war generally — causes in the following decades.

The story moves in leaps and bounds through the years, using key social events to shade in the context of the family members’ lives and effective flashbacks to fill in key details from the intervening years. Barbara holds both the family and the story together with her unfailingly generous spirit. We learn how she and Michael met in a California military hospital when she nursed him through his recovery from the Bataan death march in the Philippines. Their love undergirds the family and the story even long after Michael has died. Korkeakivi uses his death and that of two other characters in and shortly after the Vietnam War to explore the long-term effects of war and the grief experienced at the loss of loved ones.

Korkeakivi moves the plot across time and space as the story shifts focus from Barbara, who eventually remarries, to middle son Francis, a sensitive soul cast adrift by loss. We follow him to Woodstock, seven years after his father’s death, and later to London’s late 60s “groovy” scene and then to the Inner Hebrides islands off Scotland.

Rebellious older daughter Patty Ann struggles with the consequences of repeated poor judgment but gives her mother a grandson whom she adores and who provides light at the end of this often dark novel. Ultimately, the family is spread across the world, from the California coast to the desert of Phoenix (where Barbara’s life is reborn through her marriage to a good but surprisingly complex man), from Europe and Africa to a secluded farm in rural Massachusetts.

Shining Sea reminded me of a compressed version of Jane Smiley’s recent Hundred Years Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age). While the latter covers twice as much time, concerns many more characters, and is written with far more detail, Shining Sea has a similar impact. In particular, the novel surprised me with its emotional punch. I was skeptical that Korkeakivi could write a family saga with serious issues at its core in less than 300 pages, but to a large degree she has succeeded. I cared about the key characters (and still do, as they wander around in my mind). The plot is compelling, with mysteries at the heart of a few subplots, and her prose is seamless and elegant without calling attention to itself.

The key to the artistic success of Shining Sea is Korkeakivi’s ability to move the plot and develop her characters by implication; she displays a deft hand at knowing when to move quickly and allow the reader’s general knowledge to fill in the background and when to slow down and focus on the moments in the characters’ lives that will define them and affect us.

Shining Sea probes the unpredictable and often inexplicable nature of the lives we lead. Barbara gives voice to the novel’s theme when she says, “The thing about life is that it is so damned confusing. Such a web, each piece of it dependent on something else, something that can be as tiny as a smile from a stranger or as huge as heart disease. The good all tangled up with the bad.”

Summer Fiction Preview, Part 2 (July-August): 14 Books You Don’t Want to Miss

Last week I posted my summer fiction preview for June, a month that was totally booked and thus deserved a post of its own. Here are another 14 books worth looking into.


June 28

Invincible Summer

Alice Adams — Invincible Summer

This debut novel has a superficial breeziness that makes it seem like a beach read, but below the surface lies an insightful story of four friends (two female, two male, including a brother-sister pair) striving to make their way into and through adulthood in a confounding world. Set in England and Europe over the past 20 years, Invincible Summer follows the characters as they set off on careers in banking, physics, and the arts, all the while trying to maintain their friendship, find love, and cope with setbacks both personal and professional.


July 12

99 STORIES-092415.indd

Joy Williams — Ninety-Nine Stories of God

Williams received a lot of well-deserved attention last fall when The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories was published. Her dark stories concern people who are struggling with issues large and small, and her razor sharp dialogue, acerbic wit, and highly polished prose have won her many admirers among the literati, but, sadly, she is still not widely known. In her new collection, a slim volume of short “flash fiction” pieces, she directs her laser beam sensibility on characters experiencing psychically and physically violent confrontations with God.

Heartbreaker

Maryse Meijer — Heartbreaker: Stories

Meijer’s broken glass stories have been compared to the work of Amelia Gray, Laura van den Berg, and Lindsay Hunter. The selections in her debut collection share Joy Williams’ obsession with misfits trying to make sense of a world that seems unhinged and uncaring. These are spare and unsparing glimpses into hidden lives.

Pond

Claire-Louise Bennett — Pond

Pond is generating some pre-publication buzz for its Proustian, observation-based narrative of a young woman’s life in a coastal Irish village. Early reviews are ecstatic: Publishers Weekly calls it “strange, unique, and undeniably wonderful,” Jenny Offill says it is “ferociously intelligent and funny,” and Colum McCann sees echoes of William Gaddis, Lydia Davis, and the Irish writers Samuel Beckett and Edna O’Brien. High praise indeed for this short, sharp shock of a book.

Sarong Party Girls

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan — Sarong Party Girls

Described as both Emma and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in modern Asia, Tan’s debut concerns the lives of four young Singaporean women on the hunt for an ang moh (Caucasian man) with whom they can have “Chanel” (mixed-race) babies, both of which confer status on a local girl. Tan probes the economic and cultural contradictions inherent in rapidly changing Singapore and captures the essence of the city-state with her hybrid Singlish prose.


July 19

Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn — Here Comes the Sun

Dennis-Benn, from Jamaica, digs deep under her home’s tourist-covered beaches in her depiction of the real Jamaica. Like Kristina Kahakauwila’s This is Paradise (2013), about the lives of Hawaiians away from the hotels and beaches, Here Comes the Sun depicts the contrast between the Jamaica experienced by tourists and the one in which its people live and love. Older sister Margot has been working at a Montego Bay resort, trying to get ahead and send her younger sister, Thandi, to school so she can avoid having to make the kind of compromises Margot has made. A proposed resort development holds the promise of economic freedom for Margot while it threatens the girls’ village. Dennis-Benn has written a potent portrayal of womanhood, sisterhood, dreams, love, and betrayal in a place that outsiders view as paradise but which locals view simply as home, the place in which they live their complex lives.

Monterey Bay

Lindsay Hatton — Monterey Bay

Remember Doc Ricketts from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row? He’s back in this coming of age story set in 1940 and featuring an independent 15-year-old named Margot Fiske, who is fascinated by Monterey Bay’s marine life and the local marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, for whom she begins to work as his sketch artist. Margot’s father, a visionary businessman, soon recruits Ricketts to aid him in developing an aquarium project. Steinbeck plays a minor role as Ricketts’ best friend. Hatton is equally adept at depicting Margot’s blossoming emotional life and the denizens of the colorful Cannery Row of that era. Monterey Bay captures the past and present of this famous literary location.


July 26

The Muse

Jessie Burton — The Muse

Burton burst onto the literary scene two years ago with the critically acclaimed novel The Miniaturist, set in Amsterdam during the Renaissance. She returns with a premise that is beginning to sound tired: a mysterious painting is discovered in the present and leads back to the compelling story of its creation and creator. In this case, the novel begins in 1967 with a Caribbean immigrant who works in a London museum. The back story is set in a small Spanish village in 1936 and involves the daughter of a wealthy Jewish art dealer from Vienna and a local brother and sister, who work as a housekeeper and painter. Everything ties together in intriguing ways.

The Unseen World

Liz Moore — The Unseen World

Moore’s novel is the story of 12-year-old prodigy Ada Sibelius. Home-schooled by her secretive and eccentric scientist father, who takes her to work with him every day, Ada is challenged when her father begins to suffer from dementia, leaving her emotionally stranded. She determines to investigate her father’s past to find answers to his present and, surprisingly, her own. Early rave reviews from Tea Obreht, Robin Black, Jami Attenberg, Ann Hood, and Dana Spiotta suggest that this mysterious coming of age story is a work of first-rate literary fiction.

Leaving Lucy Pear

Anna Solomon — Leaving Lucy Pear

Solomon impressed with her first novel, The Little Bride, in 2011. In her sophomore novel, she explores what happens when a young unwed mother in 1917 Massachusetts abandons her baby to create a new life elsewhere, only to return after a decade and encounter the woman who is raising that child. Solomon deftly probes the complex web of relationships with her daughter Lucy at the center, as well as the contradictory post-WWI culture of the Roaring Twenties in New England. Recommended for those who value crystalline prose from a novelist with a poet’s eye for close observation and ear for language.


August 2

a-wife-of-noble-character

Yvonne Georgina Puig — A Wife of Noble Character

Inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Puig’s debut novel is set among the wealthy Houston oil set. Vivienne Cally, now 30, is a big fish who has been swimming in these protected waters until she is challenged intellectually and emotionally by Preston Duffin, who has long known and admired Vivienne from a social and cultural distance. A recent architecture grad, he draws Vivienne’s interest, at which point matters become complicated. Puig’s pointed social commentary elevates A Wife of Noble Character beyond what might otherwise be a stock comedy of manners.


August 9

The Book That Matters Most

Ann Hood — The Book That Matters Most

Hood, the author of An Italian Wife and The Red Thread and the recipient of awards for her writing on food, travel, and spirituality, this time out pens a tribute to the power of books to save us. When Ava’s 25-year marriage ends, she joins a book group for company. Assigned to share “the book that matters most” to her, she revisits a childhood favorite that helped her through the deaths of her mother and sister. The book, and her search for the obscure author, lead her to revelations that lead Ava and her daughter Maggie, struggling with romantic disillusionment in Paris, to rebuild their lives.

Shining Sea

Anne Korkeakivi — Shining Sea

Korkeakivi demonstrates that a gifted author can tell an epic family saga in 300 pages, something about which I was initially skeptical. As in her debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, she writes beautifully and with compassion and insight into the relationships and events that shape our lives. Spend some time with the Gannon family and experience family and societal change and growth from 1962 to 2015 (with flashbacks to WWII). Shining Sea is like Jane Smiley’s Hundred Year Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, Golden Age) in one book.

Another Brooklyn

Jacqueline Woodson — Another Brooklyn

Woodson, among our best YA writers for the past two decades (with many awards to her credit), moves into adult fiction with Another Brooklyn, which examines that time in one’s life when friendship and neighborhood are all. Woodson’s young protagonist, August, moves toward adulthood as she learns that there is another Brooklyn, the other, grimier, side of the shiny coin that is her childhood.