I like reading short stories and certain kinds of poetry, and I love a good novel, but I often lose interest. This summer (and I'm counting up until the Equinox as summer), I plowed through several mainstream books that, although they weren't always ideal and were sometimes unbelievable, were, nevertheless, entertaining. In fact, they were so gripping, they often kept me up instead of letting me fall asleep.
Longbourn by Jo Baker. 2013. This is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, but from the servants' point of view, particularly one servant, an orphan named Sarah. If you are a P&P fan, that alone should get you to read it. The descriptions are interesting, and the downstairs plot echoes the original, but the humor is absent. Jane Austen is funny! This book is serious and a little melodramatic, but it still made me want to read onward. Read a review here.
The Invention of Wings: A Novel by Sue Monk Kidd. 2014. This is historical fiction surrounding the Grimké sisters, abolitionists and feminists during the Civil War era, when a woman's place was not speaking her mind. The chapters alternate between Sarah Grimké and the slave that was given to her, named Handful. Sue Monk Kidd weaves stunning images and poetic sentences, but at some point you realize she is the Steven Spielberg of writers: she can and does manipulate your emotions, and verges on the edge of disbelief. Vivid imagery. Makes me want to read a bio of the real Sarah. Read a review here.
Shanghai Girls: A Novel by Lisa See. 2009. More sisters in historical fiction who are struggling with "acceptable" social roles. These two sisters have a modern life in Shaghai in the 1937 until a family situation forces them to relocate to the United States: Angel Island and then Los Angeles. Lisa See has been researching and writing about this time period for several books, which grounds them. The characters go through difficulties and changes, but for some reason, the book is fascinating, touching, but not depressing. See is a wonderful writer who cares about her characters as well as about language. There is a sequel, which, after a breather, is next on the list. Read a review here.
Codex by Lev Grossman. 2004. A young twenty-something man with a high-power job is enticed into working for a beautiful Duchess to hunt for a mysterious old book with questionable origins, which puts his situation in jeopardy. He drafts a young woman to help him, with unpredictable consequences. The plot moves along quickly, descriptions are wonderful, that it centers around the search for a book caught me from the beginning. The ending was not as satisfying to me as I'd hoped, but otherwise, a good read, with some funny lines! Read a review here.
The Gardens of Kyoto: A Novel by Kate Walbert. 2001. A lovely book of longing that takes place in the 1940s and '50s and that pivots around Ellen, the quiet and shy, first-person narrator, who comes of age and loses loved ones. Letters, war, and a book are prominent running threads. The paragraphs are beautiful and haunting, as if they were veiled. While the losses are sad, they do not feeling depressing or crushing because the author keeps the reader at somewhat of a safe distance, but the effect is still moving. The narration is told to an unseen "You," and it shifts among several interconnected story lines. Walbert connects and draws out her descriptions with emotional content so that the reader feels as connected to the places and detailed objects as the narrator does. Even so, it has a surreal quality to it. The social circumstances of what is acceptable for a woman in this postwar time period are touched on as well as Civil War era history. Read a review here.
With the exception of Codex, each of these novels features a woman as the main character, and even the supporting woman character in Codex is strong and takes charge of her life. Some of the women are active, some passive, most impulsive, but all with strong beliefs about justice and their role in the world.