If you’ve read José Saramago’s later novels (such as the masterpieces Blindness and Seeing), reading his first is like looking at a slightly blurred photo of someone you know well. But H., the narrator of the Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (Mariner, $13.95), is a blur to himself. A portrait painter, he produces icons of CEOs for boardrooms. Emphatically not an artist, he nonetheless struggles with aspirations to create great works and to reveal the truth about his subjects—or, as he slowly learns, of his real subject: himself. Frustrated with images, he turns to words, and the novel is a series of “experiments in autobiography” that encompass H.’s travels through Italy, his love of the Renaissance masters, the end of a passionate relationship, and Portugal’s political troubles of the 1970s when the country was “plagued with disquiet and fear.”
Literary wunderkind Nell Freudenberger has given us her best novel yet. It’s an unusually moving study of an unusual marriage, told from the point of view of Amina, a young Bangladeshi woman who travels to snowy Rochester, New York, to marry George, a man she met online. His motives are hazy; for her it’s a business decision, a chance to rescue her destitute family. Nevertheless, The Newlyweds (Knopf, $25.95) stumble towards a quiet mutual tenderness— until the emergence of old secrets upends their fragile equilibrium and Amina returns to Bangladesh alone. Freudenberger, a seasoned, sensitive traveler, is especially attuned to the myriad small ways that different cultures mesh and repel one another. She makes us wonder how much of any relationship can be explained by “culture clashes”—or are our loved ones simply unknowable, regardless of their origins?