2011 at 5am Posted by Rebecca Joines Schinsky
Oh, the headaches this list has given me! Literary fiction has always comprised the majority of my reading, and this year was no exception. I skipped some of the Big Books of the year–though it seemed to me that there were fewer universally-raved-about Big Books this year anyway–and felt lukewarm about some of the ones I did read. And while I still read more literary fiction than anything else this year, I read less of it than usual as I embarked on more adventures in genre.
Whereas creating last year’s list was challenging in the TOO MANY CHOICES way, this year’s was an exercise in identifying the books I really, truly loved and believe will have enduring significance. Without further ado, here they are, in order of publication date.
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead) A contemporary take on Lysistrata, The Uncoupling begins when a new drama teacher in Stellar Plains, New Jersey assigns the classic work for the school’s next production, setting off a semi-magical chain of events in which the women of the town turn away from the men in their beds. And they don’t really know why. Wolitzer laces this examination of love, sex, and marriage with sharp observations and witty humor, making The Uncoupling one of the smartest, most engrossing works of fiction about relationships I can remember.
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Grove Press) In 2007, Goldman lost his wife Aura Estrada in an accident just a few weeks shy of their second anniversary. He writes her back to life in this novelization of their story, remembering the passion with which they loved (and fought), resurrecting the unexpected joy of finding love when he had long since given up, and mapping the geography of grief and loss in searing detail. Say Her Name is devastating, breathtaking, beautiful, and not to be missed.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Harper Collins) Undeniably one of the blockbuster hits of the year, State of Wonder, about a female doctor who goes off to the Amazon to search for another female doctor who seems to have gone all Captain Kurtz while conducting research with a native tribe, is an inspired, woman-centric (yet mostly apolitical) modern version of Heart of Darkness. Sort of. Patchett’s mastery of language is downright swoonworthy, and this is mesmerizing fever dream of a novel.
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan (Knopf) In this, her sophomore novel, J. Courtney Sullivan brings together three generations of women at the family’s summer home where they dredge up old disputes, incite new ones, and search for the love that underlies their chronic dysfunction. Chapters revolve between the women’s perspectives, allowing Sullivan to delineate sixty years of family history and demonstrates remarkable narrative skill as she inhabits Alice, Kathleen, Maggie, and Ann Marie’s very different worlds with equal command and insight. Suffused with subtle by pointed commentary informed by Sullivan’s feminist identity, Maine is more than a thinking woman’s beach book; it is an emotionally rich examination of family and the landscape of relationships that readers male and female alike will find applicable and appealing.
Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante (Grove/Atlantic) Dr. Jennifer White’s best friend Amanda has just been murdered and found with four fingers surgically removed from her hand, and she–a retired surgeon who specialized in hands–is the prime suspect. But her rapidly worsening dementia means that this will be far from an open-and-shut case, as Jennifer cannot remember whether she murdered or friend or not. This is a stunning novel that is about much more than whodunit, and LaPlante writes with a confidence and authority uncommon in debut works. Turn of Mind is riveting, heartbreaking, and constantly surprising in a dozen different ways. The mystery is compelling, but the real thrills here are in LaPlante’s presentation.