Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin
This atmospheric novel focuses on a pivotal summer for eleven-year-old Marcus on a South Carolina barrier island, living with his artist aunt, helping guard a sea turtle nest, and becoming fascinated with a ruined cottage. Locally known as Grief Cottage, a family staying there may have died in a long ago hurricane. Charlotte frequently paints the cottage, and Marcus likes to visit it, wondering if it’s haunted. Having lost his best friend and his mother, Marcus is unsure if his eccentric, reclusive Aunt Charlotte really wants him to stay. He visits with an elderly neighbor and gets good advice from Charlotte’s friend Lachicotte Hayes when not riding his bike, checking on the turtle nest, and unpacking boxes and memories from his last apartment with his mother. Young Marcus is good company in this melancholy, leisurely read. A fairly lengthy epilogue makes for a satisfying resolution, tying up some loose ends on a hopeful note.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
After Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave died, she worried that her two children wouldn’t have a happy childhood. Part memoir and part self-help book, co-authored with psychology professor and author Adam Grant, this book is full of case studies of people who’ve experienced great loss and how they’ve recovered and become more resilient. Raw and intimate, Sandberg’s account of her husband’s sudden death and the aftermath is moving. Facebook executive Sandberg admits she never appreciated the difficulty of being a single parent, although she has a large network of family and friends, a supportive boss, and is very wealthy. I’m not sure that someone who’s just lost a family member would find comfort in this book, but those who are wondering when and how they’ll recover might, along with people who want to support them. Sandberg appreciated when people asked, “How are you today?” and didn’t avoid talking about her loss. Sandberg talks about what she learned about grief and resilience, and how she and the kids got through their first year without Dave.
The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman
I was not expecting a novel about a widow with two young girls to be laugh-out-loud funny. Lillian’s husband died suddenly three years ago. She fell apart, but her sister Rachel helped pick up the pieces. Lillian is a textbook illustrator, and her daughters Annabel and Clare are now five and seven. A new work assignment has the whole family taking a gardening class, led by a Dutch master gardener. The class bonds over pizza and gardening, and a couple of romances have potential. Though conversations are very frank, especially when Lillian’s sister-in-law comes to visit, there are no sex scenes. The characterization is top notch and the witty dialogue, both spoken and internal, is great. It will not surprise the reader to learn that the author has three kids and several pets, as Annabel, Clare, and their new friend Bash often steal the scene. This first novel was a delight to read. More, please!
The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
The gorgeous scenery on the cover is echoed in this beautiful, melancholy novel set in Thirroul, New South Wales, Australia. It’s 1948, and a doctor and a poet are finally home from the war, trying to find their way back to normal life. Anikka Lachlan and her husband Mac are happily raising their 10-year-old daughter, Bella, when railwayman Mac is killed in an accident. Ani and Bella struggle through their grief, helped by neighbors. Ani is given a job at the railway library, where she encounters Ray, the poet with writer’s block, and Frank, the doctor who has little patience for the villagers’ minor health complaints. Mac remains part of the whole book, with scenes from the beginning of their marriage, and as Ani learns new stories about Mac. Thirroul, south of Sydney, is picturesque, with surfers, fishermen, tropical flowers, and dolphins. The author commissioned a poem for the novel, and the novelist and poet both won the Colin Roderick award. Leisurely paced and memorable, a story of loss and love.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Ove, a newly retired railway worker in Sweden, can fix many things, but not his heart. He is grumpy yet loveable, and doesn’t see the point in living without his wife Sonja or his job. Gradually Ove finds out that he is needed: first to back up a trailer, then to fix a radiator and a ceiling fan, to rescue a cat, drive neighbors to the hospital, and even to give driving lessons. His new neighbors, Parvaneh and Patrick, along with their two young daughters, help Ove break out of his shell. Gradually the reader sees that there’s more to Ove than complaining about rule-breakers and government bureaucrats, and learns about his childhood and his unlikely marriage to always late Sonja, as well as regular feuds with neighbor Rune, who prefers Volvos to Saabs. It took me quite a while to warm up to this book of mixed sadness, warmth, and humor, but I’m very glad I kept reading until I did. A movie, hugely popular in Sweden, may be coming to this country soon, and Ove is sure to gain more fans when it does. Readalikes include The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick
A sweet, whimsical novel about 69-year-old widower Arthur Pepper, who lives near York, England. In the year since his wife Miriam died, he has survived only by clinging to routine, and his children are distant. Clearing out Miriam’s clothes, Arthur finds a charm bracelet, and impulsively calls the phone number on a bejeweled elephant charm. This starts him on a series of adventures to find out more about his wife, and to restart his own life. A real charmer, this is a good readalike for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
Historian Helen is shattered by the sudden death of her father, a news photographer. An experienced falconer, she retreats from human society and begins training a young female goshawk, Mabel. Goshawks are bigger and deadlier than other hawks she has handled, and Helen turns to old books on falconry for inspiration, including medieval books and T. H. White’s memoir, The Goshawk. White, the author of The Once and Future King, is a very unhappy person, although an interesting one, and I would have liked more of Helen’s story and less about White. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to read this well-reviewed book, because I thought it would mostly be about hunting with a hawk. Later in the book, there are detailed hunting scenes, but the book is much more about grief and getting in touch with nature. Mabel is terrified of her new world and Helen needs to become first invisible and then familiar in order to work with her. At one point, Helen is identifying more with the hawk then with her human friends and family, but thankfully she regains some balance. Finishing a research fellowship at Cambridge, Helen explores the land around the university with Mabel, seeing it from a new perspective. I thought this book was moving, beautifully written, and in parts, a page-turner, as I really wanted to find out what happened with Mabel and Helen.