Contemporary Novels


Celestial and Roy have been married for 18 months when Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison. It’s a scenario that could happen to anyone in the US, but we all know it’s more likely to happen if you’re black, which Roy happens to be. This undercurrent of racism is all the more distressing because the characters take it so completely for granted (“You don’t have to tell me that,” one of them says. “I’ve been black all my life.”). Yet the political concerns never overwhelm the entirely human stories of the three people who live in the heart of the book: Roy, Celestial, and her lifelong best friend Andre.

The novel begins on the night of the arrest, switches to epistolary mode to quickly cover five years of Roy’s imprisonment, and then takes us moment by moment through the subsequent climactic events. The first-person voices of the three main characters are distinct and compelling–Roy’s gentle but not limitless sense of humor, Celestial’s intensity, Andre’s righteous solidity. (I could have done with fewer TV references, but that’s just me.) All three of them instantly won my sympathy, powerfully enough to stay with them when they each made bad decisions later on. There are plenty of secrets to go around, and a crowd of colorful supporting characters, all of them vivid and believable.

The novel is gripping and funny and sad, but it also tackles big questions head on. What are the various kinds of love and how do you tell them apart? Where does loyalty to yourself begin and loyalty to others end? How much of the burden of injustice must each of us take on? Nothing in AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE is easy, especially the answers to these questions.

The book was a huge critical and commercial success, and deservedly so. It’s got a ripped-from-the-headlines issue, riveting suspense, and timeless human emotions.

Contemporary Novels

COME WITH ME by Helen Schulman

COME WITH ME is a novel about the “many-worlds” interpretation of Quantum Mechanics that was originally proposed by physicist Hugh Everett in the 1950s. This is the idea that every decision we make splits off an alternate reality–in other words, all possibilities exist simultaneously, each in its own parallel universe.

What’s remarkable is that Helen Schulman has explored these ideas in a completely mainstream novel that is set in the present-day consensus reality of one disintegrating family. Amy is living the humiliation of working for her college roommate’s 19-year-old son at a start-up tech company. But she’s got to keep the money coming in; her journalist husband, Dan, is melting down because he can’t find a job, and they have three kids to raise. Jack, the oldest, is completely obsessed with his long-distance girlfriend. His twin younger brothers (with the Seussian nicknames “Thing 1” and “Thing 2”) have their own problems. Theo is being bullied and Miles spends every possible moment playing Magic: The Gathering.

It quickly becomes apparent that all the characters are either living in alternate worlds (Jack is on FaceTime 24/7; a trans woman, Maryam, has had her body surgically altered to match her true gender) or contemplating life-disrupting changes, either in the past (Amy’s miscarriage) or future (Dan’s growing obsession with Maryam). Along the way we get highly relevant side trips into virtual reality programming, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, teen suicide, and much more.

I confess that I did not approach the novel with my left brain, tracking all the correspondences. The characters are too sympathetic and richly drawn, the writing too hypnotic. Instead I enjoyed it like a piece of music, listening to the echoes everywhere, like guitars drenched in reverb. The repeated invitations from one character to another to “come with me.” The many turning points, the roads not taken, the piling up of consequences.

In the end, Schulman herself backs away from a strict scientific interpretation, and instead follows her heart, choosing to believe that some things are, after all, meant to be. And I’m glad I came with her.

Contemporary Novels


In one of the major plot threads of Rebecca Makkai’s brilliant, heartbreaking novel THE GREAT BELIEVERS, Yale Tishman gets what seems to be a career-making opportunity: the museum where he works is offered a collection of previously unknown paintings from the early 20th century by Modigliani, Foujita, and others. It’s 1985, and the donor, now nearing the end of her life, had been a “muse” and model for the artists in question during the golden years before World War I. Are the paintings real? Can the museum lock down the deal despite the opposition of the donor’s family?

A second, alternating timeline is set in 2015. Fiona, the little sister of one of Yale’s friends, is now in her 50s and has gone to Paris in search of her adult daughter. Another golden age is ending there, as the neo-liberal dream of globalism is poised to crash on the rocks of ISIS and right-wing populism.

Neither of these things is what THE GREAT BELIEVERS is about. Makkai’s concern is with another golden age that ended too violently and too soon: the community of young men in Chicago in the 80s, including Yale, that was devastated by the AIDS epidemic.

From the first paragraph, you are drawn into Yale’s viewpoint and within a few pages you care deeply about him and everyone around him. Fiona’s chapters take a little longer to set their hook, but slowly it becomes clear how much those days in the 80s are still with her.

Makkai’s great gift is dialog that has enough mannerisms to sound completely natural, and at the same time the power to carry the work of the novel with exacting grace. Maybe it’s inseparable from the compassion that she brings to all the characters, that lets her see the depth of humanity in all of them without flinching from their sometimes-overwhelming physicality.

Soon your need to get to the end of the book is even stronger than your desire to linger there permanently. This is old-school storytelling at its best: third person past-tense strictly limited POV, with only two viewpoint characters; prose that doesn’t call attention to itself, yet stands up under repeated readings. Best of all, it’s not embarrassed to be full of ideas–political ideas, philosophical ideas, questions that can’t be answered, blame that needs to be assigned. It’s a big novel that reads quickly, and yet is bigger inside than out because it holds so much life inside it. Fiction doesn’t get any better than this.