Lily Tuck, whose novel The News from Paraguay won the National Book Award in 2004, is one of our finest writers of novels-in-vignettes, and her latest, Sisters (Atlantic Monthly, $20), takes compression to extremes. Its “chapters” are often over in a page, a paragraph, sometimes a sentence, but they’re such vivid shards that you feel like you’re catching all the other pieces in a mosaic without having to see them spelled out. This is the story of a woman reflecting on her shaky marriage, whose trappings—her husband’s children, passions, and memories—all come courtesy of a prior spouse. Tuck centers on her narrator’s relationship with this other woman, who, though living across town, always seems to be in the air. What could turn spiteful in another writer’s hands comes off as gentle and empathetic in Tuck’s, as her lead character seizes on snatches of imagery (“a messy ponytail,” “did not wear rings”), to think through what her ostensible rival’s life must be like. Is it the narrator and not the man who links the two of them who truly understands this woman, she who sees that the bouillabaisse dinner he fondly remembers from France might have made her pregnant body sick? For such a short novel, Sisters is full of these kinds of insights, simply but inimitably framed.
One of the most talked about books this autumn, and my favorite, was My Absolute Darling (Riverhead, $27), by Gabriel Tallent. Shocking and unsettling, at times difficult to read, the novel follows fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston, who feels more at home in nature than she does with her survivalist and damaged father, as she searches for freedom and fights for her soul. Roaming the woods one night, wondering if her father would be able to find her, she meets two lost teenage boys and guides them safely out. And that is the moment she starts questioning her home life. The way Tallent brings you steadily into Turtle’s mind makes you almost feel her pain. He manages to capture her deepest thoughts, her internal struggle, her will to survive. Obviously suffering from Stockholm syndrome, she debates with herself over whether to stay or leave, doubting her worth every step of the way. But she fights and she survives. She is the kind of girl, brave and determined, with whom readers are almost duty-bound to fall in love. Tallent grew up in Mendocino and spent a lot of time outside. His love for the region is evident in Turtle’s view of the place and Mendocino itself is a strong character in the book. This is Tallent’s debut novel. And what a remarkable debut it is!
Friendships seldom get the sustained literary treatment that romances do, but Claire Messud’s insightful novel The Burning Girl (W.W. Norton, $25.95) shows that these relationships strike as deep, stir as many emotions, and do as much to shape a person, for better or worse. They can have special force when formed early in life, and Messud’s protagonists, Julia and Cassie, are best friends from nursery school to roughly seventh grade. Narrating the friendship and its aftermath, Julia, the one who takes paths already there rather than striking out into untrodden territory—the one who sets limits—insists that she and Cassie are as close as sisters. Their two families never mesh, however, and Julia comes to realize that her notion of “home” is not Cassie’s. Much of Cassie’s home life is guesswork, and while Julia does that work, her version of Cassie is partly made up; at times Cassie seems like one of the characters Julia, an aspiring actress, inhabits on stage. Messud uses the inherently self-dramatizing period of adolescence as a lens to view more difficult questions of how well any two people can know each other, and she brilliantly demonstrates how the typical rites of passage—fantasizing about an alternative family, surviving junior high cliques—can suddenly yield “one of those events that that was little and big at the same time,” bringing about the kind of understanding that a person never forgets.