Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
McEwan’s latest is set in England in the early 70s. Serena Frome, a lover of fiction, gets talked into majoring in math at Cambridge by her mother, but ends up writing book reviews for a short-lived high/low culture magazine started by a fellow student. This leads to involvement with a history professor, who, aware of the anti-communist rants she’s indulged in for the student magazine, begins grooming her for a position in British government intelligence. Serena is then selected for a secret program involving Tom Haley, an up-and-coming fiction writer. Soon she’s progressed to loving him as well as his writing. She never manages to tell him about her job or the project. McEwan’s writing pulls you along with plot, wit, and character development, as well as a mind-bending twist at the very end.
How It All Began, by Penelope Lively
Another British novel, this one set in the present. The plot is driven by the repercussions from a mugging. Charlotte, a retired English teacher, is knocked down by a couple of thugs who steal her purse. Since she breaks a hip, she temporarily stays with her daughter and son-in-law. A Polish immigrant she tutors in English now comes to her daughter’s house for their session, and strikes up a friendship. The daughter’s job with a self-important historian unravels as a suavely self-serving young academic worms his way into the historian’s good graces. An interior designer sends a text message to her lover, which falls into the wrong hands, at the same time that her biggest client disappears, leaves her holding the bag on a major innovation. The relationships between the characters are intricate, and almost everything that happens can be traced back to the mugging. Lively makes all of them three-dimensional and engaging.
This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
It’s easy to forget that this isn’t a novel, but a collection of short stories. In all of them, a character named Yunior describes his romantic misadventures, and there’s a spectacular pattern of serial cheating which generally results in an explosive end to the relationship. After that, he experiences remorse to varying degrees, recovery, and the pattern starts over: couple, stray, regret, repeat. In other hands, this could be an exercise in disgust, or at least eye-rolling, especially for the female reader. But Yunior manages to remain a sympathetic character even as we see him fall off the fidelity wagon again and again. He’s just hard enough on himself to engage us, and yet self-mocking enough that we don’t dismiss him as a drama queen. And in the last story, The Cheater’s Guide to Love, we get to see him finally wise up, and begin to heal himself by (what else?) writing about it.
author photos, from top:
Carolyn Cole/LA Times