Photo: Philip Friedman/Studio DThe Light Between Oceans
By M.L. Stedman
There's something irresistible about a morally complex story that makes you root for all its flawed characters, even when they're at odds with one another. The Light Between Oceans (Scribner), M.L. Stedman's seductive debut, is just that sort of book. And it comes with a bonus: a high-concept plot that keeps you riveted from the first page. Tom Sherbourne is the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote island off the western coast of Australia. Tom is a WWI vet whose battlefield experience has left him righteous; his bride, Isabel, is brave and modern, having forgone the comforts of the mainland to join her beloved. Life is good for the Sherbournes, except for one thing: Isabel has had two miscarriages and despairs at the thought of remaining childless. Suddenly, a boat washes onshore; in it are an infant and a dead man. Isabel is desperate to keep the child, and Tom, despite his misgivings, cannot bring himself to ruin his wife's dream by reporting what happened. That disaster will ensue is obvious, but Stedman layers her story with three-dimensional characters and twists that are at once surprising and inevitable. When all is finally revealed, and many good people's lives are destroyed, Tom ruminates on the nature of love, honor, and responsibility. "There are still more days to travel in this life," he thinks. And everyone "who makes the journey has been shaped by every day and every person along the way. Scars are just another kind of memory."
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Photo: Philip Friedman/Studio DWhere'd You Go, Bernadette
By Maria Semple
You don't have to know Seattle to get Maria Semple's broadly satirical novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette. The title character, a middle-aged Los Angeles transplant, lives in the Emerald City with her 15-year-old daughter, Bee, and her husband, Elgin, a big-deal executive at (where else?) Microsoft. Once a brilliant young architect, Bernadette now pours her energy into ranting about the flaws of her adopted city: slow drivers, ugly hair, too many Canadians. Eventually, Bernadette goes missing and her family uses e-mails and other documents to try to find her. Underlying the nontraditional narrative are insights into the cost of thwarted creativity and the power of mother-daughter bonds, although a reader may be having too much fun to notice.
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Photo: Philip Friedman/Studio DThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
By Rachel Joyce
When Harold Fry receives a letter from his long out-of-touch friend, Queenie Hennessy, saying she is dying of cancer, the kind but reserved retired British salesman responds exactly as one would expect: He writes a two-line sympathy note and walks to the postbox. But then, instead of mailing the letter, he decides to keep walking-all 627 miles to Queenie's bedside in Berwick-upon-Tweed. In a rare display of faith, he also calls her hospice nurse: "Tell her Harold Fry is on his way.... I am going to save her...." Thus begins Rachel Joyce's gorgeously poignant novel of hope and transformation, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Twenty years earlier, Queenie did Harold an extraordinary kindness, and promptly disappeared. Walking to her now with blistered feet, he tells strangers about his quest and is surprised to discover that they "believed in him." Harold's wife, Maureen, regrets the years she's been unfairly mean to her husband and fears he'll never return; he's sure he isn't welcome. While a touching portrait emerges of Harold's long-ago friendship with the plain but dignified Queenie, this is ultimately a story of a marriage in need of repair. The question isn't whether Harold will reach Queenie, but whether he'll find his way back home.
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Photo: Philip Friedman/Studio DDare Me
By Megan Abbott
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