We all have that one friend or family member who just seemed to disappear. Whether it’s a childhood friend who ditched your group, an ostracized sibling, or a person you just can’t seem to understand anymore, they remind us of how tenuous our social connections are. The three new novels in this week’s book club are all about the mystery and sorrow of moving on to something new. They examine the ties we have to others, and the way we stretch, bend, and cut them.
1. The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton ($27):King Lear is an epic and familiar story. It’s the tale of a ruler felled by age and ego, who listens to empty flattery and disinherits his only truly loyal child, only to face the karmic consequences. There’s a reason it has been told many times over hundreds of years; its themes resonate when we think about our leaders and the many families we’ve seen torn apart by greed. Gratton gives Lear a new spin, turning it into a fantasy novel about warring potential queens.
“On Innis Lear the trees tended toward hard and hearty, shaped by ocean winds and the challenge of growing against the bedrock; not green and radiant so much as gray and blue with the coolest brown barks, lush moss creeping around in hollows, and thin leaves and needles. They spoke softly, the spreading low mother oaks and thorned hedges, weaving their words into the wind so their king could not hear.” Innis Lear used to be a powerful kingdom, but its king has been steadily running it into the ground. More likely to trust prophecy than sense, he’s removing all magic from the land, causing great poverty and despair.
All three of his daughters, Gaela, Regan, and Elia, know that something definitely needs to change, and an heir must be chosen, but their father is dragging his feet, wanting to wait until the time is right to perform the ritual he believes necessary. While Elia, the “star priest,” still wants to care for him, Gaela is spoiling for a fight, assisted by the Machiavellian machinations of Regan. You know how this goes down, but with her portentous and epic fantasy retelling, Kirkus Reviews says Gratton “achieves the rare feat of a Shakespeare adaptation that earns the right to exist.”
2. The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman ($26): “As children, The Gunners could not have imagined that by the time they were sixteen years old, one of them would turn her back on the others, and the group would be so fractured by the loss, the sudden and unexplained absence of this one, that within weeks the other friendships would also dissolve, leaving each of them in a dark and confounding solitude. Mikey Callahan became a sink hole; everything inside sort of loosened and then just collapsed.” Kauffman’s second novel (her first was the critically praised Another Place You’ve Never Been) opens with six-year-old Mikey discovering for the first time that most people have two eyes that work, instead of just one.
Mikey lives in a poor neighborhood in Lackawanna; he doesn’t know who his mother is, and his father is a rough man who eats only four foods, “cereal, apples, white bread with cold cuts, and Chips Ahoy! Cookies,” and is constantly trying to keep the financial wolf from the door. Mikey’s father is dark of mood, cold and critical. So when Mikey meets Sally Forrest, a girl from another single-parent home in the neighborhood who is also seeking friendship, the two bond quickly. Soon, they gather a tightly knit group of six kids, including Alice, Jimmy, Sam, and Lynn. They spend as much time as possible in their hideout, an abandoned home, and call themselves “The Gunners” after its former owners. They are inseparable, until the day Sally just leaves without explanation, never speaking to any of her former friends again. She doesn’t join another group; she just leaves.
After splintering in Sally’s absence but later reconnecting online, the group physically reunites 15 years later; it’s once more due to Sally, but in this case, they meet at her funeral. Mikey, now dealing with rapidly progressing macular degeneration at 30, is happy to see his former friends back in his hometown (he never left, and neither did Sally). Everyone at the funeral has his or her own theory about why Sally left, most blaming themselves. If you’re guessing some secrets are going to come out, you’re probably right. Kauffman’s work captures the feeling of growing up and dealing with change and loss; of looking at your former friend or former self and feeling “A dense, aching emptiness that contained so much.”
3. The Baby Plan by Kate Rorick ($16): 33-year-old Nathalie Kneller is relatively close with her younger half-sister, 24-year-old Lyndi. She grew up with her and her mother, Kathy, after Nathalie’s mother died when Nathalie was young and her father remarried the family friend. Nathalie has been trying for some time to have a baby, and she’s finally pregnant and ready to tell her family, hosting Thanksgiving for the first time with an announcement she’s been composing for three years… but before she can deliver it, Lyndi throws up, scooping her news and her condition. (And the worst part is, Nathalie made the mashed potatoes that caused it.)
Lyndi’s not having a great time, either. Even though she’s getting her life together and enjoying her new promotion at a “flower co-op” and roommate/sort-of-boyfriend, she’s still not nearly all the way to growing up, and a baby is a major complication. Worse, she’s always been able to come to Nathalie for an older sibling’s advice. But Nathalie’s always let Lyndi “get her way,” and now she seems to be sick of it, and a distance is growing between them. This distance is magnified by Nathalie’s growing annoyance with Kathy’s enthusiasm, and friendship with Sophia, who is about to send one child (from a teen pregnancy) off to college, and discovers she’s expecting another.
Kate Rorick, creator of The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, delivers a pointed satire and commentary on the competitive craziness of American baby-making, where judgment and consumerism run rampant, and moments are carefully curated. It’s also a story about growing, finding, and potentially losing a family, and discovering you can only cut ties for so long.
What books can’t you cut loose? Tag us in your next steadfast read @BritandCo.
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