Recommended Reading: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex didn’t land on my radar until graduate school, when I devoured the novel in two days, reading on the T, in line at the pharmacy, in the kitchen. I stayed up late. I cried. And then I read it again.

So it was with eager fingers that I turned the first pages of The Virgin Suicides (1993), the first of Mr. Eugenides’s three published novels.

I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s very, very different from Middlesex; it doesn’t share the sweeping scope of family, history, and geography. Instead, the focus on the girls feels almost claustrophobic; the reader is hemmed in, drawn to the inevitable, macabre conclusion the book’s title suggests.

I’d never seen this style of narration before: first person plural, never broken. The middle-aged men who look back on the Lisbon sisters and their own younger selves act as archaeologists, excavating and archiving objects and memories in an attempt to come to terms with the tragedy in their hometown. Because the narrators are just as bewildered as the reader, the novel sidesteps the available easy answers, the laying of blame.

And it’s Eugenides. The writing is breathtakingly beautiful.

Recommended Reading: Fludd, by Hilary Mantel

My husband, bless him, knows very well that the presents I like best are books. For my birthday the first year we were married, he picked out Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and for my first Mother’s Day, it was Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel. Forget brunch and overpriced flowers: I’m all about Cromwell and Anne Boleyn.  As a bonus, he gave me enough time away from my beloved son to devour the book in two sittings.

Since it appears I’ll be waiting a while for the third installment, my last birthday brought with it A Place of Greater Safety (very long, and to be embarked upon when my beloved son decides to sleep through the night and past 5:00a.m.) and Fludd. [And the new biography of Leonard Cohen, which I can’t wait to get to, and The Song of Achilles, so good I read it twice, and a few other gems.]

Fludd is a slim volume (under 200 pages), with a cover design I can’t quite get behind, but it’s a gem of a novel. Ms. Mantel regards her characters with an unsentimental but ever-interested eye, transforming, like her creation Fludd, the frustrated men and women of cold and grimy (and fictional) Fetherhoughton in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Ms. Mantel’s mordant but quiet wit suffuses the novel, which I highly recommend.

Recommended Reading: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

My copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh includes an interview with Michael Chabon, in which he talks about the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth on this, Mr. Chabon’s first published novel. While I haven’t read enough Roth to comment on the connection (truly, one of his novels was quite enough for me, though you may, if you choose, think me a Philistine), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, without being at all similar in plot or setting, did indeed seem caught up in the summer-long wave of events that is The Great Gatsby; the last page of the novel, especially, savored strongly of the green light.

Art Bechstein, the narrator, spends his first post-collegiate summer in Pittsburgh looking for adventures and answers with a new, wildly interesting set of friends.

That’s not a great summary, but really, how do you summarize a novel? I’ve always found it tremendously difficult, and the stress that results from worrying about what to leave out and what to highlight makes me thirst for a tall gin and tonic.

But I digress.

This is my third Chabon novel. I very much enjoyed Wonder Boys, which I like to read in conjunction with Straight Man, by Richard Russo, my number-one contemporary lit-fic squeeze, and I recommend Mr. Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to just about everyone. It was the first-year summer reading at Ohio State (Go Bucks!) when I was a freshman (lo these many years ago), and it was an awesome pick.

Reading a first novel after reading those polished, longer pieces was delightful; I saw later characters germinating, saw the beginnings of Mr. Chabon’s wit and breadth of view. It wasn’t jarring (the way that reading The Comedy of Errors after reading King Lear is almost terrifying), but rather gave me a chance to appreciate the author’s mature prose in light of his youthful exuberance, without denigrating either.

A few other stray thoughts: I’m a sucker for kind but clear-eyed descriptions of north-easternly cities that aren’t New York (hailing as I do from Cleveland by way of Buffalo), and Mr. Chabon’s Pittsburgh is a character in this novel. The first-person narration works, and the slight departure from it in the penultimate chapter made me sit up and take notice of what was happening, without fanfare or fireworks.

It’s a fine bildungsroman with charm and verve, and it comes highly recommended.

By the way, I hear there’s a film version, and that you shouldn’t see it.

Recommended Reading: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping is one of those books that’s impossible to read quickly. Every sentence is meticulously designed, flawless in execution, exquisite. In fact, the writing is so good that I feel self-conscious even attempting to write about it.

I’ve had the novel on my nightstand for at least a year, walking slowly through its passages. I stopped dog-earing pages long ago, because almost every page contains something I’d like to add to my commonplace book. I’ve had Gilead and Home, Ms. Robinson’s subsequent novels, socked away for ages, but I think I’ll let this one ruminate for awhile before I jump in. (Ms. Robinson is also a noted essayist, and I’m looking forward to reading her essay collections, too.)

Though tragic occurrences populate the novel, it wasn’t the events that made me cry (as they did, in, say, Tell the Wolves I’m Home). As I finished the novel last night, I was moved to tears, not only by the beauty of the language, but also by the portrait of Ruth, the novel’s narrator-protagonist, which is slowly revealed, page by page. She and her family are viscerally real.

I don’t want to say more. Housekeeping deserves a quiet and careful reading, and will reward its reader with a lake’s worth of depth and delight.