They say you only get one chance to make a first impression, but most of our favorite stories are about second chances; we love reading about the recovery after the fall, the Comeback Kid, that brand-new phase in a seemingly ordinary person’s life. The books in this week’s book club all begin in the second act of their main characters’ lives, when something big changes. Read on and discover a second-chance career, a second chance at life, and a second chance at love.
1. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland ($35): “I do attest that I am here against my will, having been brought here from September 8, 1850, and from the city of San Francisco, California (the day before California was granted statehood). I do attest that I belong in Boston, Massachusetts in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. There, and then, I am part of the Department of Diachronic Operations: a black-budget arm of the United States government that has gone rather badly off the rails due to internal treachery.” In Stephenson and Galland’s collaborative effort, Melisande Stokes starts off as a lowly lecturer in the Ancient and Classical Linguistics Department at Harvard, a seemingly prestigious job that actually involves a lot of grunt work and no job security. Imagine her surprise when she (literally) runs into a man who asks her, seemingly at random, to translate a selection of antique documents for a shadowy government agency that even the craziest of conspiracy theorists haven’t discovered. At a much, much higher salary than she currently makes.
Tristan Lyons, the intriguing man who seems slightly out of place, convinces Melisande that this life is much better than working for her unethical graduate advisor, but she’s soon ensconced in a world that contains multitudes of new discoveries, most importantly, that magic seems to have been real. All documented references to its existence, however, disappear by the mid-1800s. What’s that about? What is the relationship between the rise of science and the decline of magic? Does it have something to do with the Great Exhibition of 1851 or a mysterious solar eclipse?
Galland and Stephenson’s book winds madly through several of these brave new worlds of language, magic, science, and even some time travel thrown in. Work in the chemistry between Melisande and Tristan, and you’ve got a pretty good second life shaping up; until, that is, Melisande finds herself trapped and wondering whether her second chance might be her last. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a ride; as Tristan says to her, early on: “You have an agreeably uninteresting existence. Let’s see if we can change that.”
2. The Little French Bistro by Nina George, translated by Simon Pare ($26): Sometimes the life we’ve got seems too difficult to bear. For Marianne Messman, it’s not just being stuck in a rut; she’s been married for 41 years to her emotionally abusive and controlling husband Lothar, she feels unable to make decisions for herself or be happy, and she’s had it. When she takes a package trip from Germany to France, she decides that her last act will be to drown herself in the Seine: “Her final today. Time had seemed infinite when she still had many years and decades ahead of her. A book waiting to be written: as a girl, that was how she had seen her future life. Now she was sixty, and the pages were blank. Infinity had passed like one long continuous day.”
Her plan goes awry when she is pulled from the river and revived, but not to be deterred, she leaves the hospital intent on finishing what she started. On her way to walking into the sea in Brittany, she finds herself in Kerdruc, a small town on the coast. This sets in motion a chain of events that will give her a second chance at enjoying her life: Though her French is nonexistent at best, Marianne winds up being drafted to help out in the local bistro’s kitchen, and her colorless world springs into focus. Her senses come alive, and the people she meets, from the lovelorn chef to the artist seeking a muse, open her up to the possibilities of a life worth living.
Will Marianne go back to her drab old life, or will she choose to make a permanent change now that she’s let in color? Continuing the tradition of her bestselling The Little Paris Bookshop, George gives us another exploration of eccentric characters and sensual descriptions of the pleasures of life. It aims to make your mouth water and your fingers search for the best deal on your next French vacation.
3. Our Tiny Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan ($16): Janice has a pretty safe life. Her work as a microbiologist is stimulating and stable, and she’s mostly alright on her own after her divorce. Her family, however, has other plans for her seemingly placid existence: Her sister Caroline has been married to Henry for 15 years and has definitely moved out of “Newlywed Lane.” The cracks are more than beginning to show, as Henry compares marriage to having to eat the same food for every meal without a break and starts having a serious affair with his children’s elementary school teacher. When he leaves, Caroline follows, and that leaves Janice to stay at their house and take care of the children, Mercedes and Paris, trying to give them some semblance of normalcy while everything changes. Or so she hopes.
What actually happens is classic farce material; Janice finds out her sister has also been having an affair with a neighbor when that neighbor sneaks into the house and she discovers him sans clothing, only for the both of them to be discovered by her ex-husband (and the neighbor’s wife), who draw their own conclusions. The trouble is, Janice never fell completely out of love with her ex-husband, who she divorced mostly out of guilt for her infertility issues. Thinking about what she’s lost, and seeing the wreckage of other relationships around her (kids or not), she wonders if she might be able to take a second chance: Of course, she’s going to have to sort out all the miscommunications first.
Maybe her mother, who raised her daughters for 15 years after their father left but moved to an ashram in India after Caroline’s marriage, has the right idea, finally focusing on herself and sending her family cards that say things like, “Remember: don’t be too good. Free yourself from expectation. Give in to the revolution in your soul.” Jordan’s book combines a whirlwind of a humorous plot with a serious look at how we bind ourselves to others, the choices we make, and the chances we’re given.
What books made you take a chance? Tag us in your next life-changing read @BritandCo.
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