9 Characters Rebuilding Their Worlds for the Better

January 6 2022
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Thinking of all that is thrown at us on any given day, week, month, or year, turning to novels for escape feels not just logical, but absolutely necessary. Sometimes we want alternate realities, fantastical tales that take us away from a life we recognize. Other times—which has been the case for me, lately—we want to see characters battling hardships and emerging on the other side stronger and still whole. This list features a few of my most recent favorite characters, who refuse to settle into their situations as they seek to rebuild some aspect of their lives.

Handle with Care
by Jodi Picoult

Rebuilding strength after hardship

Charlotte already knew, before her baby arrived early on a stormy night, that her child would be born with several fractures. What she hadn’t fully considered was what everyday life with Willow would be like: her daughter’s brittle bones can easily break, even from something that seems as minor as a small fall at an ice cream shop in Disney World. This is the book’s opening incident that shreds holes in the family’s already complicated existence, leaving Charlotte’s other daughter, Amelia, even more bitter and isolated. Tensions run high in the family, seemingly defined by illness, as each member considers their role, their future, and the value of a life, in chapters directly addressed to Willow.

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Handle with Care
Jodi Picoult

When Willow is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, her parents are devastated—she will suffer hundreds of broken bones as she grows, a lifetime of pain. In this provocative story from the #1 New York Times bestselling author, “Picoult writes with unassuming brilliance” (Stephen King).

Every expectant parent will tell you that they don’t want a perfect baby, just a healthy one. Charlotte and Sean O’Keefe would have asked for a healthy baby, too, if they’d been given the choice. Instead, their lives are made up of sleepless nights, mounting bills, the pitying stares of “luckier” parents, and maybe worst of all, the what-ifs. What if their child had been born healthy? But it’s all worth it because Willow is, funny as it seems, perfect. She’s smart as a whip, on her way to being as pretty as her mother, kind, brave, and for a five-year-old an unexpectedly deep source of wisdom. Willow is Willow, in sickness and in health.

Everything changes, though, after a series of events forces Charlotte and her husband to confront the most serious what-ifs of all. What if Charlotte had known earlier of Willow’s illness? What if things could have been different? What if their beloved Willow had never been born? To do Willow justice, Charlotte must ask herself these questions and one more. What constitutes a valuable life?

Emotionally riveting and profoundly moving, Handle with Care is an unforgettable novel about the fragility of life and the lengths we will go to protect it.

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Parable of the Sower
by Octavia E. Butler

Rebuilding civilization

Lauren isn’t ready for the painful ending of life as she knows it, alone outside her walled community, but at least she’s prepared. Her bag thoughtfully full of survival gear, her head flooded with her writings and ideas for a new society, she slowly amasses a following willing to listen and help her search for land safe enough to create anew. Incredibly visual scenes and poignant words, tough choices and unprecedented circumstances make for a fantastic discussion for your book club. As the start to a two-book series, the detailed world-building and distinctive characters make this a worthy journey to experience, one that is a somber yet ultimately hopeful reflection of our current climate reality.

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Parable of the Sower
Octavia E. Butler

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We Are Not Like Them
by Christine Pride & Jo Piazza

Rebuilding friendship

Riley is ready to share her talents with Philadelphia’s news channel as one of the first Black female anchors. Jen, who is white, is working to build the family she’s always wanted: she and her husband, a police officer, are expecting their first child. For these best friends, life finally seems to be on track. Suddenly, their worlds are upended, though, when Jen’s husband is involved in a shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, and it’s Riley’s job to report on the tragedy. Now Jen and Riley’s friendship is tested as never before, rendering them unable to ignore biases and their differing experiences of race. I can’t begin to adequately express the power of this story, with the thoughts and discussions it provokes.

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We Are Not Like Them
Christine Pride & Jo Piazza

“Now these women, they can WRITE!” —Terry McMillan, New York Times bestselling author of It’s Not All Downhill from Here

We Are Not Like Them will stay with you long after you turn the last page.” —Laura Dave, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Thing He Told Me

Told from alternating perspectives, an evocative and riveting novel about the lifelong bond between two women, one Black and one white, whose friendship is indelibly altered by a tragic event—a powerful and poignant exploration of race in America today and its devastating impact on ordinary lives.

Jen and Riley have been best friends since kindergarten. As adults, they remain as close as sisters, though their lives have taken different directions. Jen married young, and after years of trying, is finally pregnant. Riley pursued her childhood dream of becoming a television journalist and is poised to become one of the first Black female anchors of the top news channel in their hometown of Philadelphia.

But the deep bond they share is severely tested when Jen’s husband, a city police officer, is involved in the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Six months pregnant, Jen is in freefall as her future, her husband’s freedom, and her friendship with Riley are thrown into uncertainty. Covering this career-making story, Riley wrestles with the implications of this tragic incident for her Black community, her ambitions, and her relationship with her lifelong friend.

Like Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage and Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, We Are Not Like Them explores complex questions of race and how they pervade and shape our most intimate spaces in a deeply divided world. But at its heart, it’s a story of enduring friendship—a love that defies the odds even as it faces its most difficult challenges.

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The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton
by Eleanor Ray

Rebuilding self

Amy has settled into her isolated life, filling her house with objects; the boxes and boxes of stuff she surrounds herself with almost make up for the fact that she’s the only one who ever sees her possessions. But when a new neighbor with kids moves in and Amy becomes inadvertently drawn into their lives, her own way of life begins to feel less comforting. Uncovering answers from a devastating past event, Amy and her newly expanded circle reveal how quickly and wildly circumstances can change. This book reminded me of another novel I loved, A MAN CALLED OVE, and, like that one, THE MISSING TREASURES OF AMY ASHTON is one I can see myself rereading the next time I need to feel reminded that we all deserve supportive relationships. 

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The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton
Eleanor Ray

For fans of The Keeper of Lost Things and Evvie Drake Starts Over comes a funny and tender debut about a reclusive artist whose collection has gotten out of control—but whose unexpected friendship with a pair of new neighbors might be just what she needs to start over.

Amy Ashton once dreamed of becoming an artist—of creating beautiful objects. But now she simply collects them. Aquamarine bottles, bright yellow crockery, deep Tuscan red pots (and the odd slow-cooker) take up every available inch of space in her house. Having suffered a terrible tragedy—one she staunchly refuses to let herself think about, thank you very much—she’s decided that it’s easier to love things than people. Things are safe. Things will never leave you.

But when a new family moves in next door with two young boys, one of whom has a collection of his own, Amy’s carefully managed life starts to unravel, prompting her to question why she began to close herself off in the first place. As Amy embarks on a journey back into her past, she has to contend with nosy neighbors, a meddlesome government worker, the inept police, and a little boy whose love of bulldozers might just let Amy open up her heart—and her home—again.

Quirky and charming, big-hearted and moving, The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton proves that it’s never too late to let go of the things that don’t matter...and welcome the people who do.

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The Eternal Audience of One
by Rémy Ngamije

Rebuilding home

The book opens with Séraphin feeling trapped in Windhoek, Namibia, for the holidays, counting down until New Year’s Day slips by and he can leave his family to return to law school in Cape Town. Until then, he’s at the mercy of his mother, who is feeling her son detaching from her: gone is the period after they fled from Rwanda to Namibia when he was nine and couldn’t bear to be apart from her. Even sourer, in Séraphin’s mind, is the way he was forced back to Windhoek—his vacation work application to Cape Town law firms was denied, given both his status as a non–South African and non-permanent resident. One candid employer stated, “You are the right person with the wrong papers.” Returning for his final year of law school, Séraphin discovers his desires for his future are within reach as he struggles to find his place, navigating harsh realities and feelings of home. Ngamije’s writing is vibrant and poignant, including one of my favorite lines from the book: “Life starts in the middle and leaves people trying to piece the plot together as they go along. The only certainty is this: everything that is not the end must be the start of something else.”

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The Eternal Audience of One
Rémy Ngamije

The Eternal Audience of One is laugh-out-loud funny with writing that is sometimes so beautiful that it dances off the page—to a millennial beat—in perfect tempo with its tales of migration, love, loss, and friendship.—Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of In Dependence

Reminiscent of Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon, thisgorgeous, wildly funny and, above all, profoundly moving and humane” (Peter Orner, author of Am I Alone Here) coming-of-age tale follows a young man who is forced to flee his homeland of Rwanda during the Civil War and make sense of his reality.

Nobody ever makes it to the start of a story, not even the people in it. The most one can do is make some sort of start and then work toward some kind of ending.

One might as well start with Séraphin: playlist-maker, nerd-jock hybrid, self-appointed merchant of cool, Rwandan, stifled and living in Windhoek, Namibia. Soon he will leave the confines of his family life for the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, in South Africa, where loyal friends, hormone-saturated parties, adventurous conquests, and race controversies await. More than that, his long-awaited final year in law school promises to deliver a crucial puzzle piece of the Great Plan immigrant: a degree from a prestigious university.

But a year is more than the sum of its parts, and en route to the future, the present must be lived through and even the past must be survived.

From one of Africa’s emerging literary voices comes a lyrical and piquant tale of family, migration, friendship, war, identity, and race following the intersecting lives of Séraphin and a host of eclectic characters from pre- and post-1994 Rwanda, colonial and post-independence Windhoek, Paris and Brussels in the 70s, Nairobi public schools, and the racially charged streets of Cape Town.

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The High House
by Jessie Greengrass

Rebuilding land

As a teenager, Caro doesn’t understand what her father and stepmother are doing at High House, only that they’ve left her alone to care for her baby brother, Pauly. Caro’s stepmother, Francesca, a scientist in the spotlight for her warnings and theories on impending global collapse from the ongoing climate crisis, has injected so much tension into the air that her son prefers his half-sister to raise him. Flash-forward enough years for the baby to become a man, for the world to deteriorate, and for High House to become a sanctuary for Pauly and Caro, as well as for Sally, the house’s caretaker, and Sally’s grandfather, Grandy. At High House they must relearn how to care for the land around them, adapting to new realities and remembering where they most find meaning. I love the mix of the past and present story lines, the ambiguity around what exactly has happened, and what is left to do to survive. 

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The High House
Jessie Greengrass

Shortlisted for the 2021 Costa Novel Award

In this powerful, highly anticipated novel from an award-winning author, four people attempt to make a home in the midst of environmental disaster.

Perched on a sloping hill, set away from a small town by the sea, the High House has a tide pool and a mill, a vegetable garden, and, most importantly, a barn full of supplies. Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy are safe, so far, from the rising water that threatens to destroy the town and that has, perhaps, already destroyed everything else. But for how long?

Caro and her younger half-brother, Pauly, arrive at the High House after her father and stepmother fall victim to a faraway climate disaster—but not before they call and urge Caro to leave London. In their new home, a converted summer house cared for by Grandy and his granddaughter, Sally, the two pairs learn to live together. Yet there are limits to their safety, limits to the supplies, limits to what Grandy—the former village caretaker, a man who knows how to do everything—can teach them as his health fails.

A searing novel that takes on parenthood, sacrifice, love, and survival under the threat of extinction, The High House is a stunning, emotionally precise novel about what can be salvaged at the end of the world.

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The People We Keep
by Allison Larkin

Rebuilding family

Sixteen-year-old April’s family may as well be nonexistent: her father’s attention is on his new family, leaving her pretty much all alone in a motorless motor home until the day she decides to take his car and get out. A singer-songwriter, she chases gigs, unable to allow herself to stay in one place. Even when finding a welcoming community in Ithaca, she doubts its staying power, expecting her new world to come crumbling down. Slowly, life begins to feel fuller around the people she meets and the songs she pens about her experiences. I’m always looking for stories of found family and transformation, and this is one powerful, emotional tale.

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The People We Keep
Allison Larkin

“Raw, surprising and ultimately uplifting, Allison Larkin’s The People We Keep will break your heart a million different ways before putting it back together again.” —Julia Claiborne Johnson, author of Be Frank with Me and Better Luck Next Time

The People We Keep is a “big-hearted and deeply moving novel” (Bruce Holsinger, author of The Gifted School) from the bestselling author of Stay and Swimming for Sunlight about a young songwriter longing to find a home in the world.

Little River, New York, 1994: April Sawicki is living in a motorless motorhome that her father won in a poker game. Failing out of school, picking up shifts at Margo’s diner, she’s left fending for herself in a town where she’s never quite felt at home. When she “borrows” her neighbor’s car to perform at an open mic night, she realizes her life could be much bigger than where she came from. After a fight with her dad, April packs her stuff and leaves for good, setting off on a journey to find a life that’s all hers.

Driving without a chosen destination, she stops to rest in Ithaca. Her only plan is to survive, but as she looks for work, she finds a kindred sense of belonging at Cafe Decadence, the local coffee shop. Still, somehow, it doesn’t make sense to her that life could be this easy. The more she falls in love with her friends in Ithaca, the more she can’t shake the feeling that she’ll hurt them the way she’s been hurt.

As April moves through the world, meeting people who feel like home, she chronicles her life in the songs she writes and discovers that where she came from doesn’t dictate who she has to be.

This lyrical, unflinching tale is for anyone who has ever yearned for the fierce power of found family or to grasp the profound beauty of choosing to belong.

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The Leaving of Things
by Jay Antani

Rebuilding connection

The novel’s title resonates, setting a strong tone right off the bat. When the “leaving of things” involves a move from America to India, Indian-American Vikram’s new reality feels isolating and overwhelming. Already uncertain of his family’s choices—and himself—growing up in Wisconsin, Vikram feels that life is even more jarring and unfamiliar in India, with different kinds of difficult decisions to make. He’ll also have to start college away from his friends and girlfriend in America. Fortunately, time apart can often remind us of what we value most, and give us a chance to connect with others in unexpected ways. The vivid descriptions of India add even more depth and emotion to this heartfelt story of loneliness and belonging.

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The Leaving of Things
Jay Antani

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An American Marriage
by Tayari Jones

Rebuilding relationships

There is much subtle foreboding in the early pages of AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE, including when husband Roy ends a chapter he narrates by noting that this is the “last happy evening I’d experience for a long time.” From the beginning, readers are aware of the briefness of Roy and Celestial’s marriage. What’s surprising, however, is the ordinary series of events that lead up to a life-altering accusation, gutting in how easily the moment might never have happened. Soon Celestial and Roy are communicating only in letters—Roy from his prison cell in Louisiana and Celestial from the outside world—promising to remain committed and loving. But prison takes a toll and life meanders on in the meantime. When Roy is freed and ready to resume life with Celestial, it becomes clear that their relationship is at stake, with another man hovering in the periphery. The story sheds vital light on racial injustice and mass incarceration, as well as the complexities of relationships, and the dynamics of loyalty, power, and needs.

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An American Marriage
Tayari Jones

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