Put some Miles Davis or Carly Simon on the iPod and dive deep into Arthur Phillips’s The Song Is You (Random House, $15), this gifted novelist’s tragic and ebullient novel about love, loss, and what was sung. This tightly constructed but wildly imaginative story is a genuine multimedia experience. Publishers Weekly calls it “enthralling…brilliant… triumphant.” This is a hyper-imaginative tale about a New York advertising executive’s midlife crisis and estrangement, who stumbles onto a gig by a bar singer, an encounter that Phillips magnificently weaves into an obsession with the singer and the song, and, best of all, dramatizes the healing power of art and music.
J. Courtney Sullivan’s intelligent, sharply witty Commencement (Vintage, $14.95) traces the friendship, relationships, and careers of four women who meet at Smith College in the 1990s. It’s an affectionate yet critical portrait of a women’s school. But Sullivan’s smart, savvy characters would be furious if I referred to this book as chick lit. “When a woman writes a book that has anything to do with feelings or relationships, it’s either called chick lit or women’s fiction, right?” one character asks. “But look at Updike, or Irving. Imagine if they’d been women… Someone would have slapped a pink cover onto Rabbit at Rest, and poof, there goes the fucking Pulitzer.”
This summer, drop every other beach read and visit Maine (Knopf, $25.95) with the whip-smart, wickedly funny J. Courtney Sullivan. Sullivan’s debut novel, Commencement. a group portrait of friends who meet at Smith College in the 1990s, is a necessity for every smart girl’s reading list, and Maine is even more accomplished, ambitious, and addictive. We meet women from all different generations of the Kelleher clan: Alice, the boozy, strict Catholic matriarch; Kathleen, a recovering alcoholic who owns an organic worm farm in California; Mary Ann, a perfectionist in-law with a strange hobby; and Maggie, a struggling writer in New York. They converge at the family’s summer cottage, each bearing secrets that Sullivan teases out in chapters of pitch-perfect alternating points of view.
Imagine waking up in the local drunk-tank to find out that in your latest blackout, you killed two people with your car. Imagine what it would be like going to prison for that crime. Imagine trying to put together the pieces of your life when you are released. After years and years of living with the guilt of what you’ve done and trying to redeem yourself, imagine finding out that you may not have killed those two people after all. How would this information change everything that you have done and believed about yourself? How would it change the decisions you made? Blame, (Picador, $15) by Michelle Huneven, is a thought-provoking story of guilt and redemption, of love and belonging.