Well, yes, you could go do outdoorsy things this summer. Or you could read.
Here are six new books that are good summer reads. Wishing you a season full of good books!
By Emma Cline (Random House, $28)
Emma Cline’s previous novel, “The Girls,” followed a young woman in the throes of a cult led by a Charles Manson-like figure; her latest, “The Guest,” focuses on another young woman, this one entirely on her own, managing solely by her wits. Alex is a grifter who’s perfected the art of “how to draw people in with a vision of themselves, recognizable but turned up ten degrees, amplified into something better. How to allude to her own desires as if they were shared desires.”
The ironically titled “The Guest” lets us tag along on a week in the Hamptons, as Alex, summarily dismissed by the older man at whose beach house she’s been staying (he didn’t like her behavior at a party), decides she’ll wait six days and then see if he’ll take her back. This means she has six days and nights with nowhere to go, and we watch with fascination as Alex joins a group on a house-share weekend (everyone assumes they know her from somewhere), persuades a house manager to let her hang at his employer’s lavish home (Alex is good at finding people whose job it is to be agreeable), latches on to a family at a country club, and charms a lonely teen who knows someone with an empty house.
You read “The Guest” quickly and breathlessly, wondering how long Alex can sustain her act — and realizing it could, if need be, go on forever. And yet Cline, through the dreamy elegance of her writing, makes Alex a poignant figure as the days waft by. Alex, who is “tall enough and skinny enough that people often assumed that she was more beautiful than she was,” sees herself as a ghost, floating through life, attached to nothing and no one, letting shame “become a feeling she considered from a distance.”
By Nicole Cuffy (Random House: One World, $27)
This timely debut novel unfolds in the world of ballet, where Celine (Cece) Cordell has just become the first Black principal ballerina at New York City Ballet (she notes, ruefully, that people mistake her for Misty Copeland, though the two are “shades of brown apart”). Only 22, Cece is both dazzled by her position in the country’s most storied ballet company and uncomfortable with it; she knows that she is now an icon, a symbol, “that there are people who need me more than I need myself.”
Through the book’s graceful pages, with chapter headings named for elements of ballet, we follow Cece’s rocky relationship with a fellow dancer (we know, long before she does, that he’s not good for her); her search for the troubled older brother who disappeared from her life, but whose relationship with art inspired her own; her navigation of a company where friends and rivals are interchangeable and one bad rehearsal can change one’s fate, but which represented to her as a young student “a forbidden city to which I was desperate for admission.”
Nicole Cuffy writes beautifully about dance, weaving in the kind of detail that’s both vivid and informative (the idea that dancers have bad turn days or bad balance days, the mechanics of being lifted, how an adagio combination makes the dancer feel like she is “growing up toward the ceiling like new, green life”). And in Cece she creates a heroine who’s believably still maturing, but whose hard-won wisdom resonates on the page. Accustomed to seeing herself in the mirror as “a black slash in a line of whippet-thin white,” she sees her choice as a career in the art that she loves as a rebellion, an “insistence that Black women can be ethereal too. That we don’t always have to be drawn in bold lines.”
By Rafael Frumkin (Simon & Schuster, $27.99)
Stories about con artists seem to be in the air these days; see the first review in this list, or “Inventing Anna,” or “The Dropout.” Apparently, we’re in the mood for stories about people reinventing themselves, finding ways to grab more than their share, telling lies so routinely they no longer can recognize the truth. Rafael Frumkin’s second novel feels pleasantly evocative of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”: Ezra, our narrator, falls hard for the handsome and charismatic Orson, whom he meets at a teenage labor camp, the “final stop before juvie.” Orson’s feelings for Ezra feel a bit more transactional; he’s fascinated by how people tend to believe whatever Ezra says. “It’s not innocence exactly,” he says of that quality; it’s more like “you invite scrutiny because you can withstand scrutiny.”
And withstand it he does, for a while, as the two form a con-artist team with schemes growing bigger and bigger — until they create a fake corporation, with a product that supposedly helps users “bring your body and mind together,” creating bliss. (In fact, it does nothing.) But to Ezra’s dismay, Orson begins to pull away from him, drawn to lights shining elsewhere as Ezra’s eyesight, literally, dims. Frumkin has crafted a clever satire of how we’re pulled toward shiny things and how it’s possible to fly near the sun with no wings, with a final line that made me laugh out loud.
By Dennis Lehane (Harper, $28.99)
Dennis Lehane is just so very good at this. “Small Mercies,” like all of his dozen or so novels (several of which have become very good movies), is a crime thriller set in a big city, where people are just trying to live their lives despite darkness swirling around them. This time, it’s 1974 Boston, and working-class, tough-as-nails mom Mary Pat Fennessy doesn’t know why her teenage daughter Jules hasn’t come home. But she knows that racial divisions are causing tension in the neighborhood and that a young Black man was found dead on the train tracks that night. Could Jules be somehow connected to that event? Mary Pat, whose other child died in the Vietnam War, isn’t going to lose her daughter without a fight, even if it means having to deal with Boston’s most sinister crime lords.
“Small Mercies” takes place during a heat wave, and you feel the sticky closeness on every page, as Lehane introduces us to a sea of Southie folk: cops, gangsters, extended family, activists, aimless teens, grieving mothers, hangers-on. Lehane can be very funny; note how Jules, early in the book, “bolts from a chair like she owes it money.” But at its heart, “Small Mercies” is an epic tragedy with a remarkable character at its center: Mary Pat, a deeply flawed but immensely sympathetic person consumed by a strength she didn’t know she had, determined to find out what happened to her daughter, at any cost. Watching her, detective Bobby Coyne is “struck by the notion that something both irretrievably broken and wholly unbreakable lives at the core of this woman. And those two qualities cannot coexist. A broken person can’t be unbreakable. An unbreakable person can’t be broken. And yet here sits Mary Pat Fennessy, broken but unbreakable.”
By Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, $28)
Sometimes, you just need a rom-com. Curtis Sittenfeld, author of multiple previous novels including the very funny Jane Austen spoof “Eligible,” here tackles the simplest of plots: Sally, a TV writer in her 30s, meets Noah, a pop music star, when he guest hosts her show — and against all odds, they end up in a relationship. Because every good romance has to overcome obstacles, they have plenty: Noah’s fame, Sally’s belief that a man as famous as Noah couldn’t possibly love an “average” woman, and the pandemic, which descends midway through the book and upends their lives.
Sally basically writes for “Saturday Night Live,” except here it’s called “The Night Owls,” and if you’ve spent any time watching “30 Rock” it’s hard not to see her as Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, working way too many hours and good-naturedly dealing with casual sexism but nonetheless believing that she has the best job in the world. “I think of TNO as the love of my life,” Sally says at one point, and her eyes fill with tears, not “because I thought what I was saying was sad. It was because it was true, and not sad at all.”
Sittenfeld makes Sally a wonderfully vivid character; it’s a pleasure spending time in her head. We don’t spend as much time inside Noah’s head (other than some revealing emails midbook), but it’s no spoiler to say that he turns out to be a sweetheart, and that the book is written with wit and heart. Sally talks at one point about how she wants to write a romantic comedy screenplay, with two characters who “aren’t flawless but also aren’t ridiculous or incompetent at life,” and that’s pretty much what Sittenfeld has crafted here. I’ve now read it twice, just for the pleasure … and because sometimes, you just need a rom-com.
By Jenny Xie (Riverhead, $28, out June 20)
Jenny Xie’s debut novel is an irresistible mother-and-daughter story. Kathleen, the daughter, has dropped out of grad school after a breakup and returned home to Oakland, California, to live with her mother, Marissa, with whom she has a rocky relationship. Marissa, an immigrant from Shanghai, was hard-drinking, depressed and emotionally absent for many years; now, engaged to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (whose genius invention, Wayfindr, “leverages real-time data and machine learning to help people discover hidden gems on their way from Point A to Point B”), she’s suddenly happy. Kathleen, trailing along for dress fittings and cake tastings, is mystified, trying to make sense of this new version of her mother.
Xie, who has previously written short fiction and magazine journalism, has fun with tech and influencer culture; I particularly liked a supporting character named Luke, who is obsessed with raising his pet rat Milo’s profile on Instagram and hands out business cards reading “Luke Winchester, Rat Ambassador.” But she also finds something wistful and touching in Kathleen’s tentative journey toward intimacy, which includes a stint as a professional cuddler at a startup (whose requirements include completing a Cuddle Aptitude Test). Gazing at her mother sparkling in a wedding gown, Kathleen reflects that: “She was like anyone you loved, in that way — the more intimately you knew her, the more closely you beheld the wild, unbreachable distance that would keep you from perfect understanding.”