Ready or not, novels written in 2020 or early 2021 are now being published, and a number of them are set during the pandemic. Accomplished storyteller Jodi Picoult was in Mexico for a wedding then traveled to Aspen, Colorado in March, 2020. She has been back home in New Hampshire ever since. A story about a Japanese tourist stranded near Machu Picchu in March, 2020 who finally got to tour the ruins that October caught her attention. Never having visited Peru, she didn’t want to set her next novel there. Happily for the reader, Picoult had visited the Galapagos Islands (600 miles west of Ecuador) with her family.
Diana, a New Yorker, works for Sotheby’s, and is about to sell a remarkable painting owned by a famous widow (a fictional version of Yoko Ono). She travels on a long planned trip to the Galapagos Islands without her medical resident boyfriend, Finn, at his urging. Diana ends up stranded on Isabela Island, without her luggage as the shutdown begins. Befriended by an unusual family, she explores the island and trades sketches for clothing, wondering why emails from Finn about the pandemic seem like they’re in two different worlds. Diana’s mother, a photographer, is at high risk from Covid-19, but the two of them have never been close.
I forgot that Picoult likes to throw in an occasional plot twist, and this one takes the story in a very different direction than I expected. This pandemic-inspired novel is a compelling, memorable read. If you’d rather read a contemporary novel set in the Galapagos Islands without the pandemic, try Shipped by Angie Hockman, a romantic comedy.
In the summer of 1954, Emmett Watson is heading home from a stint at a juvenile work farm to a failing Nebraska farm to collect his younger brother Billy and retrace their mother’s earlier journey on the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco. Emmett has a blue Studebaker in the barn, along with some money his father left him. Billy has his Army surplus knapsack, along with some treasures including a book of heroic stories by Professor Abernathe. Their plan is disrupted by Duchess and Woolly, stowaways and escapees from the work farm. Duchess wants to get revenge for some past wrongs, and pay back some other debts, including smuggling strawberry preserves into an orphanage. Nothing goes smoothly for Emmett over the 10 days that follow, as Duchess and Woolly plan to head to New York City and the Adirondacks to retrieve a fortune that should be Woolly’s. Woolly is sweet, irresponsible, and prone to sipping from a medicine bottle. Emmett and Billy end up riding the rails, meet Ulysses, a black veteran longing for his missing wife and child, and have many detours along the way. While this isn’t the mid-century road trip and family reunion readers might be expecting, this is an absorbing and entertaining read with some rather dark moments. A memorable third novel from a master storyteller.
Philomena (Lady Dunbridge), her butler Preswick, and her new maid Lily have just stepped off the boat in New York City for a visit to Phil’s friend Bev Reynolds when shots rings out. Bev’s husband Reggie is found dead in his roadster, in the arms of his mistress Mimi. Phil is just out of mourning herself, but neither widow is grieving her spouse. Reggie’s true love was breeding and racing horses, and some of the most exciting scenes are at the stable and the Belmont racetrack. Detective Sergeant John Atkins is investigating Reggie’s death when another body is found, casting suspicion on Bev. Phil, Preswick the butler, and Lily investigate, as Phil takes the reader on a whirl through Manhattan society in 1907. Lively, entertaining, and sassy, with a strong sense of place, an enjoyable first mystery set in the Gilded Age. Tell Me No Lies and A Resolution at Midnight continue Phil’s adventures.
Romy Keene works for her uncles in their New York City bookstore, living in an apartment above the shop. When the building is sold and their rent skyrockets, Romy enters a contest to win a huge bonus and a position with a travel company. All Romy needs to do is visit the same landmarks as Phileas Fogg did in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days, without taking a commercial flight. And Romy needs to be faster than Dominic Madison, whose uncle is her new evil landlord. Romy has never been further from New York City than Montreal, and is definitely not an intrepid traveler. Many adventures later, the cargo ship she and Dominic are traveling on rescues a group of Somali refugees, and the pair find a new, mutual goal. This book is perfect armchair travel reading for summer, complete with a little romance (with Dominic, of course!). A good non-fiction readalike is Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman. This novel really kept my interest, and will be published on August 11.
I thoroughly enjoyed this first novel about a Bengali widow who takes a cross-country trip from New York City to Los Angeles with a young Bangladeshi guide and a struggling actress as her companion. The trio stay at basic chain hotels and eat a lot of mediocre Indian food, visiting all the usual tourist sites. Pival has lost contact with her son, who may be in Los Angeles, and wants to confront his partner Jake. This is her first time away from Kolkata, India and I enjoyed seeing the country through Pival’s point of view. Rebecca, when not acting or picking up men in bars, works at a map store in New York City while young Satya is on his first tour outside the city, and is always hungry. This is a poignant, heartwarming, and occasionally funny character-driven story about outer and inner journeys. I’m looking forward to the author’s next novel, set in Mumbai, India.
April becomes a celebrity after she encounters a large metallic statue late one night in Manhattan. Her friend Andy records a video with April and the statue they nickname Carl, and the video goes viral. Sixty-four identical statues have appeared in cities around the world, including one in Hollywood. April gets a publicist and makes the rounds of talk shows, yet doesn’t know how to maintain her relationship with Maya. April, now known as April May, has plenty of adventures trying to solve the mystery of the Carls. While she definitely has some weaknesses, April thinks the Carls are benevolent, and has high hopes for the future. Fast-paced and entertaining, this first novel is a compelling, quirky read. More, please!
Clara Darden is a new art instructor at the Grand Central School of Art in late 1920s New York City, hoping to illustrate covers for Vogue magazine. Clara doesn’t get the same respect as male artists, and the Depression makes it increasingly harder for artists to make a living. In 1974 Virginia Clay, recently divorced mother of college-age daughter Ruby, gets a job at the information booth at the rundown terminal. Virginia discovers the abandoned art school, and a painting similar to one featured in an art auction catalog. While the painting may be valuable, the real masterpiece here is the Grand Central Terminal, which is about to lose its landmark status. Art, architecture, and the lives of the two women connect in a very satisfying way. Readalikes include Georgia by Dawn Tripp and The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro. This appealing historical novel is sure to be popular with book groups.
Jende and Neni Jonga, immigrants from Cameroon, pursue the American dream in New York City in 2007. Jende is fortunate to find a good job as chauffeur to Lehman Brothers executive Clark Edwards and his family. Neni is in college, their son Liomi is in elementary school, and they are happy together in their tiny Harlem apartment. Jende hears Clark’s phone calls in the limo, Neni spends time in the Hamptons helping Cindy Edwards with child care, and they both learn the family’s secrets. Neni is pregnant again, and Jende wants her to take time off from work and school, even though their legal status in the United States is uncertain. Then Lehman Brothers collapses, the Great Recession begins, and both families are in turmoil. Jende thinks that with their savings, they may be happier back in Cameroon, but Neni really wants to stay and get her degree. The Edwards, not as resilient as the Jonga family, are even unhappier. They are not as vividly drawn as the Jongas, and I didn’t care about their problems as much. I really enjoyed reading about life in Cameroon, and the Jongas’ interactions with their fellow immigrants. This debut novel is our September book discussion selection, and is also the latest book club selection by Oprah Winfrey. I look forward to hearing what everyone else thought about this compelling novel.
Rich New York socialites are befriended by writer Truman Capote in the 1950s. Truman is openly gay, so their husbands don’t mind having him around on their yachts and in their villas. Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Harriman, and Slim Keith freely confide in him; only C.Z. Guest doesn’t share her secrets. Twenty years later, Truman reveals their secrets in a fictionalized article for Esquire, with grave consequences. The author explores the lives and relationships of these glamorous women and the colorful writer, best known for his book In Cold Blood and a remarkable black and white ball. Gossipy, entertaining, yet often sad, this novel is a compelling read.
Isabel, an investigative reporter for the New York Post, is befriended by her colleague’s father, Edward. They both live on Roosevelt Island, in the East River. Edward was married to Paula for 69 years, and promised before her death to keep on living. Happily, he’s a gourmet cook, and Isabel starts visiting weekly for dinner and advice. Edward tells stories about his life, shares his poetry, and turns Isabel into a foodie. She has moved many times with her husband and daughter, and her marriage is unraveling. In later chapters, Edward is visibly aging, while Isabel might be falling in love again. This charming memoir reads like fiction. I only wish that it were longer and included recipes.