Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (Scribner, $28) captures a time and place on the verge of momentous change. Set in Brooklyn in the 1940s, the novel tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, a young woman who has dropped out of Brooklyn College to contribute what she can to the American war effort. Unsatisfied with her job of inspecting and measuring machine parts, she attempts to enter the male-only world of deep-sea diving. Manhattan Beach is rich and atmospheric, highlighting a period when gangs controlled the waterfront, jazz streamed from the doors of nightclubs, and the future for everyone was far from certain.
Shaker Heights is a perfectly planned town full of people with seemingly perfectly planned lives, but when Mia and her daughter Pearl move in they start a series of little fires, small rebellions, that shake the community to its core. Celeste Ng brilliantly explores the nature of art, family, and identity in her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Press, $27). The writing is beautifully elegant and layered, and you’ll find yourself immediately swept up in the lives of the characters. At the heart of the story are four mothers: one whose carefully planned family was nearly derailed by a high-risk pregnancy and who watches her youngest daughter so carefully that she forgets to show her love; one who leaves her child at a firehouse to save her life in a hopeless moment; one who longs for a child and fears her chance will be snatched away before she can experience the wonder of motherhood; and one who made a dangerous choice to raise her child on her terms. Whether you are a mother or a child, the story of these women and their families will stay with you long after you turn the last page.
Larry McMurtry has always been ambivalent about the success of the fiction in which he portrays the cowboy myth and the rugged Texas machismo that comes with it, but as you read the three novels collected in Thalia: A Texas Trilogy (Liveright, $29.95) you won’t be of two minds. Actually, upon learning that McMurtry wrote all these books in his twenties and that they were the very first three he wrote, you’ll be burning with envy. In Horseman, Pass By, McMurtry sets Lonnie Bannon with his love of his Granddad’s ranch and way of life against Hud, his step-brother, who is endlessly crude and cruel. At the center of Leaving Cheyenne are Gid, Johnny, and Molly, a rancher, his cowboy hand, and the woman they both love. They each take a turn telling the story of their unconventional lives in small-town Texas. Finally, there’s The Last Picture Show, in which we see Thalia as a dead-end place. Of the three, this is perhaps the most darkly comic, as nearly every character engages in self-deception in order to eke out an existence in a town where every day is the same. Amid the fantastic and perhaps unbelievably melodramatic events, McMurtry finds a bottomless well of compassion for his characters. This is one time capsule was worth re-opening.