THE BEAN TREES begins with a tire exploding and a woman leaving home in a battered car and changing her name. From this description, it may sound as if I’m speaking of a high-octane thriller, but THE BEAN TREES is a beautiful literary novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s first (before she was famous for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE). Missy-turned-Taylor Greer is neither running from a killer nor from the law. She’s a part Cherokee, twentysomething, down-home Kentucky girl who never could quite sit still.
Every few years, there’s one book I latch onto that I keep recommending to people, over and over. And for the last year, that book has been DESCENT by Tim Johnston. I love character-driven thrillers, and this book was geared perfectly for me. But—more than the type of book—there’s something more, something that lingers, that keeps me coming back to it.
Wally Lamb’s SHE’S COME UNDONE can be presented with many classifiers. It’s a debut, a coming-of-age story, a novel about mothers and daughters, an exploration into contemporary American anxieties, and a 1996 Oprah’s Book Club pick.
I was feeling adrift. It had been forever since a book had gripped me viscerally and not let me go until the final page. THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire was the cure for my every literary ennui. Beyond being a book I couldn’t put down, it was one I didn’t want to finish, realizing on the very first page how rare a reading experience this would be.
There is this silly word that only exists in book reviews and was probably invented by a book reviewer. It’s “unputdownable.” Spell check will always underline it in red, auto-correct will always suggest confusing replacements, and I’ll always picture a book with some sticky, glue-like substance on it preventing you from releasing it. The word might be silly, but the concept isn’t.
I happen to judge books by their “stickiness,” or how long the story, resolution, or characters stick with me after I finish the last page. The stickiest book that I’ve read in a long while was Mindy Mejia’s EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE.
When I look back at my teenage self, with my ill-advised bangs and strange affinity for glittery blue eyeliner, I remember both the highs and lows of growing up. There were hilarious adventures with friends and moments of intense loneliness in which I felt unsure of who I was. I’ve done my fair share of growing up since then, and I still have a little way to go, but reading Caitlin Moran’s coming-of-age story HOW TO BUILD A GIRL instantly brought back all the memories that I had somehow managed to forget.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall under the highly infectious spell of the onerous and brutally sarcastic Will Traynor. From his peculiar choice of greeting when meeting Louisa Clark to his scowls at anything remotely enjoyable she suggested—I couldn’t help it, I fell madly in love with the guy. And honestly, I think that’s the feeling that Jojo Moyes’s ME BEFORE YOU was meant to evoke. But after a love like Will, what next?
I finished Kent Haruf’s absorbing, finely crafted novel OUR SOULS AT NIGHT in tears. It had pierced my heart, where there are no words. To my husband’s bewilderment, all I could manage was wow, wow, wow. I wish I could write like that, I said. I wish my stories could make readers cry.
Twenty-nine years ago, my agent, who was also V.C. Andrews’s agent, changed my life. “We would like you to think about finishing Virginia Andrews’s latest novel,” she said. “She’s too sick to do so.”
The idea was at first overwhelming. V.C. Andrews was a major worldwide publishing success. I was, at the time, a high school English and creative writing teacher who graded papers and wrote thrillers, but I had never before been asked to write in another author’s voice. I attacked the challenge with all my research skills and spent hours reading and rereading Virginia Andrews’s works until I understood what made her writing distinct. Her vocabulary and syntax, images, and dialogues were truly special.
You may say there is no such thing as a perfect book. You’re probably right. But the one book that comes closest to it, in my mind, is SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW by William Maxwell. If you’ve not read it, you should. Immediately.