Each summer, I get childishly excited at the prospect of what to read on my summer vacation. I could, of course, blame my enthusiasm on my profession — as a book editor, I read so much for work that it’s often hard to make time to read for pleasure. But truthfully, that’s not really the whole story: I am somewhat embarrassed to say I’ve always been like this, and my job has only made it worse.
So, what should you pack in your summer beach bag? Today’s installment: The deliciously big, long, messy, wonderful novels that you won’t want to put down.
Warning: These novels are the kind that make you want to skip a meal or two. They’re the ones that might make you ignore your friends/significant other/family when they try to talk to you on the beach, or suggest an afternoon of exploration or shopping in some lovely nearby town. Last summer, the book that held this position for me was Abraham Verghese’s CUTTING FOR STONE, and when it rained for three days straight on Cape Cod, I was secretly happy to be able to stay in bed with a blanket and immerse myself in Verghese’s masterful story of twin brothers, medicine, and the entirely absorbing world of Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from the 1950s to the present. Ten others that share this mantle are, in no particular order:
THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE by Jonathan Lethem: Lethem so grounds you on Brooklyn’s Dean Street in the 1970s that when he veers toward the fantastical, you buy ever second of it. An urban masterpiece of friendship and heartbreak.
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Adichie writes some of the best characters going and in this novel, which won Britain’s Orange Prize and was shortlisted for the NBCC award, she allows readers to understand the origins and events of Nigeria’s terrible Biafran War, through two remarkable sisters and the men who love them.
THE ROTTER’S CLUB by Jonathan Coe: One of the funniest, warmest, most heartbreaking novels I’ve ever read. High school friends in Birmingham, England in the 1970s come of age together; when you finish it, you’ll immediately want to read THE CLOSED CIRCLE, a sequel that takes place twenty years later.
ACTS OF FAITH by Philip Caputo: Geopolitics come alive in this novel set in Sudan by one of our finest journalists turned novelists. Caputo understands better than anyone the ways that religion, corporations, government and greed intersect during a humanitarian crisis; and he writes great characters too.
ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith : A literary ode to E.M. Forster’s HOWARD’S END. Smith uses Forster’s classic novel as a template for her own, which she sets at a thinly disguised version of an Ivy League university, in what is a fabulous satirical novel of race, class, and gender writ large.
MATING by Norman Rush: “Had Jane Austen been in the Peace Corps in Africa in the 1980s, MATING is the book she might have written,” says Amazon.com. A meditation on the meaning of love and romantic relationships, Rush’s novel, which won the National Book Award in1991, is one of my all-time favorites.
A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry: Few novels are as stunningly beautiful as this one, about four strangers thrown together in an unnamed seaside city in India in 1975 and the friendship that develops between them. It reads like Dickens in India. If you liked “Slumdog Millionaire,” this book will amaze you.
THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN by Claire Messud: A brilliant comedy of manners about three friends on the cusp of 30 in New York City as the 21st century begins. Messud is eagle-eyed and precise about the entitlement and aspirations of her characters, as well as the world they live in, and every detail is perfectly drawn — including an excellent twist at the end.
THE LINE OF BEAUTY by Alan Hollinghurst: Britain in the 1980s comes to life in this Booker-Prize winning novel about Nick Guest, aspiring James scholar, a gay man discovering his own sexuality in a very straight Tory moment in Britain. One of my favorites scenes involves a dance-off with Margaret Thatcher. . . and Hollingurst writes, line by line, some of the most exquisite sentences I’ve read.
THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE by Haruki Murakami: You can’t go wrong with what remains my favorite of Murakami’s long books featuring Toru Okada, the pasta-cooking jazz-listening hero; his signature disappearing cat and wife; a prostitute of the mind; a fabulous scene at the bottom of a well; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.
Next up: Short, quick, steamy summer reads to whip through in one afternoon.