These three novels I read recently are unlike each other, but they're all books I heard a lot about before picking up:
→ CALIFORNIA by Edan Lepucki was probably the buzziest novel of the summer. The debut received a huge publicity boost after Sherman Alexie recommended it on the Colbert Report (this New York Times article explains the details), and as a result, it made the NYT bestseller list the week of its release. When watching the Colbert episode, I may have squealed a little upon hearing Lepucki's name, because I've long followed her essays at The Millions and had been anticipating the book for months.
In CALIFORNIA, civilization is breaking down, and Frida and Cal have fled into the wilderness. Though life is difficult and isolated, and they are insufficiently prepared to live off the land, this seems like their best chance for survival. Two years in, they're doing pretty well. But now Frida suspects she's pregnant, and they're faced with new fears, uncertain whether they can or should bring a child into their world. They decide to seek help from the nearest community, though the settlement has a menacing reputation. Once they take this step, the story turns into a mystery as Frida and Cal discover unsettling facts about the community's past and its relationship to the world beyond the forest.
The story is a gripping one. I could rarely predict what was coming, and I was always eager to read on. Frida, Cal, and the other characters are well-developed, complicated, and flawed, and the relationships are difficult in realistic ways. For the most part, I liked the pace at which information was revealed, and I was generally impressed by the resolutions of the mysteries. There were a few elements I didn't find as effective, including the ending, but overall, this book earned my recommendation.
→ AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came out last year, and I heard about it at the time, initially from this short but memorable NPR interview. Since then, I've encountered rave reviews of the book all over, and it seems to be read and discussed with increasing frequently as time goes on. A movie version is now in the works, so I imagine the buzz will only continue its slow build.
The novel follows Ifemelu from her childhood in Nigeria and teenage romance with Obinze to her immigration to the United States and eventual decision to return to Nigeria. Her time in the US is difficult at first and very eye-opening: Ifemelu never gave much thought to her race while living in Nigeria, but she learns that in America, being black is a significant and complicated part of one's identity. Ifemelu starts a blog about her observations as a non-American black, and as it grows in popularity, she turns blogging and speaking on this topic into a career. She has a couple of important relationships but never really stops thinking about her first love. A smaller portion of the story concerns Obinze's briefer, failed stint in England and the success he finds back in Nigeria. At the core, this is a love story about the long history of a couple, both together and apart.
There's more to the plot, but that's the bulk of it. This is primarily a novel of characters and ideas, and there's a fair amount of focus on everyday life, which is interesting to readers like myself because it's far removed from our own everyday lives. I enjoyed getting to know the characters, learning about life in Nigeria, and seeing several different immigrant trajectories. I loved Ifemelu's thoughts and blog posts about race and was glad to have my own eyes opened by her experiences. However, I would have preferred either more plot or a shorter book, because some portions of the story moved too slowly, and my interest sometimes waned.
The story doesn't proceed entirely in chronological order but jumps around in time, which is something I'm fine with in general but found not entirely effective here. It took me a while to really get into the story, and the timeline shifts were one reason. But after listening to this Guardian Book Club podcast in which Adichie spoke about her reasons for the book's structure, I can better appreciate what she was doing. This whole podcast discussion is a great extra for those who have read the book -- which I encourage, because despite some criticisms, I found this a worthwhile read.
→ When THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta was published a few years ago, I heard about it repeatedly and kept planning to read it. I finally got around to it this summer because HBO was airing a television series based on the novel, and I wanted to read before watching.
In the world of THE LEFTOVERS, millions of people suddenly disappear in an event that resembles the biblical Rapture, but without any apparent correlation to the religion or morality of the disappeared. This Sudden Departure throws the world into confusion and grief, and a number of new movements grow out of the aftermath, including the Guilty Remnant, who live in silence and austerity and attempt to remind the public of what has happened. The story takes place three years later, primarily in the small town of Mapleton, where most people have moved on with their lives. The major characters are members of a family who didn't lose any members but broke apart anyway. The mother has gone to live in the town's Guilty Remnant compound, the son has dropped out of college and joined a different cult, and the father and teenage daughter left at home aren't coping very well. The final main character is a woman who lost her entire family in the Sudden Departure.
I knew about the novel's cataclysmic premise going in, but I had expected it to take place at the time of the event, not years after, so it was different sort of story than what I was anticipating. The characters involved in the cults make for interesting storylines, but those trying to get on with their ordinary lives lack the same level of drama, so the novel feels unbalanced. I appreciated the concept of showing a number of perspectives on the Departure and exploring the ways that everyone was affected, but some portions of the story struck me as overly slow and a bit dull. I really liked the way the book wrapped up, though, and that elevated my opinion of the rest. My final assessment is that this is a pretty good story of some broken people trying to find a way forward, but it had the potential to be better.
The TV series takes the same situations and characters but adds new complications and connections that lead to a richer and more exciting story. After the pilot episode, the plot diverges more and more from that of the book, and I like many of the changes. I'm less thrilled by the introduction of various unexplained weird phenomena. These seem unnecessary, and I'm not holding out for eventual explanations, because the showrunner of the series is one of the creators of Lost, which had a reputation for not offering answers to its many mysteries. Aside from that problem, I have been enjoying the first season of the show, and I'll be curious to see where the next season takes the story.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Sam Sacks takes a look at novels that tell multiple stories across different historical periods: "Once a sci-fi plot conceit, time travel has become among the most popular structural devices in contemporary fiction. Today 'time machine fiction' reigns supreme." (Thanks, The Millions!)