Standard Deviation: Katherine Heiny

★★★★

In the fictional world, there’s a certain milieu in New York society where clever (and slightly bored) people in immaculate apartments spend their time having casual affairs and profound conversations at dinner parties. While Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation is related to this kind of literary life, its characters have considerably more heart. Its lynchpin is Graham Cavanaugh, a man on his second marriage who finds himself weighing up his two former wives. To some extent the women are types: the ex is a cool, self-contained, refined lawyer; the present wife a kooky, exuberant socialiser. How on earth, thinks Graham, did he become attracted to these two women, who are so drastically different? How can they both attract and repel different parts of himself? And how can he balance his relationship with both of them, in order to bring a kind of sense to his life? A funny, warm exploration of a mid-life crisis, Heiny’s novel considers what it means to be human through the prism of one family’s experiences.

Continue reading

Three-Martini Lunch: Suzanne Rindell

★★★★

It’s 1958 in New York and change is in the air. In the shabby streets of Greenwich Village, hipsters listen to jazz, argue about politics, experiment with performance art and dream of changing the world. Into this feverish place come three young people, seeking lives that’ll allow them to become their true inner selves. Privileged Cliff Nelson is running away from a life of upper-class bourgeoisie, confident of astonishing the world with the brilliant novels he’ll produce. Eden Katz comes east from Indiana, dreaming of being an editor in a publishing industry which has little place for women. And Miles Tillman tries to find a world that accepts all his facets, as a young black man from Harlem with a top-flight education and a passion for words. By the end of the story, these three young lives will have intertwined in a compelling story of love, ambition, tragedy and betrayal.

Continue reading

Social Creature: Tara Isabella Burton

★★★½

What lengths would you go to for the perfect lifestyle? For Louise Wilson, even a mediocre life would be an improvement. At the age of twenty-nine, she’s lost faith in her New York dreams: her goal of becoming a great writer has lost its lustre, crowded out by the humiliating necessity of three minimum-wage jobs; a grotty apartment in a far-flung, seedy part of the city; and the patronising solicitude of her parents, back in New Hampshire, who hope she’ll return and marry her belittling childhood sweetheart. And then she meets Lavinia. Sparkling, daring, hedonistic Lavinia, who goes to all the good parties and knows everyone; who catalogues her life in breathless detail on the internet and who gives Louise a glimpse of a world she never dreamed of entering. And, once in it, Louise realises that she’ll do pretty much anything to avoid having to leave.

Continue reading

The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

★★★

In the midst of a boring New York summer in 1969, the four Gold children sneak out of their apartment and head off in search of a clairvoyant who’s set up shop in their neighbourhood. They’ve heard that she can tell you the day on which you’re going to die. Egging each other on, they go one by one into the woman’s shabby rented apartment where, one by one, they’re each given a date. Out on the sidewalk once again, it no longer seems like such a laugh. The four children – pragmatic Varya; curious Daniel; fragile Klara; and little Simon – return home, each of them overshadowed by the length or brevity of their allotted futures. Surely, they tell themselves, it’s all a load of rubbish? But, as the years unfold, each of the Gold siblings will find themselves following a different path, more or less clearly determined by the clairvoyant’s eerie predictions.

Continue reading

Rules of Civility: Amor Towles

★★★★½

I’ve just returned from a business trip to New York, during which I had the perfect reading material: Amor Towles’s chic but shrewd Rules of Civility. While it shares the ineffable style of Gentleman in Moscow, it has a different spirit: harder, wiser and more cynical. It conjures up Manhattan in the late 1930s: a city of walk-ups and steel fire-escapes; jazz quartets in smoky underground bars; and glittering parties in riverside mansions. And, at the book’s heart, are two young, scrappy and hungry heroines: Katey Kontent and Eve Ross. Both, in their own way, are self-fashioned and, as they wait on the brink of 1938, they can almost taste the potential in the air. Right now they might be eking out their last dollars in a downtown bar but, one day, New York is going to spill its gorgeous bounty right into their silken laps. It’s just a matter of finding the lever to get things moving. And, by happy chance, the catalyst is about to walk into both their lives…

Continue reading

Golden Hill: Francis Spufford

★★★★

My boss was enthusing about this novel some months ago and so I decided it was high time to give it a go. Without any idea of what to expect, I found myself captivated by a swaggering tale of secrets and prejudice in mid-18th century New York, and by its enigmatic and mischievous protagonist who – at least at the beginning – had something distinctly Lymondesque about him.

Continue reading

The Best of Everything: Rona Jaffe

★★★★

The easiest way I can describe this book, which follows four young women working in a New York publishing house in the early 1950s, is to ask you to think of Sex and the City crossed with Mad Men. With that description in mind you might be tempted to write it off as sugary vintage froth: a feast of twin-sets, cocktails and giggling bespectacled secretaries called Mary-Jane or Betty-Ann. But you’d be doing it an injustice. First published in 1958, this novel was written before the period had a chance to be romanticised, when the author herself had similar experiences fresh in her mind. It’s darker, shrewder and considerably more rewarding than you might expect.

Continue reading