A feature, by Becky Meloan, evaluating likely choices of books for book clubs.
A Good American by Alex George
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Pining for the good old days has never been so much fun as it is in Alex George’s A Good American. The story’s narrator, James Meisenheimer, recounts his family’s saga starting in 1903 with his Prussian grandparents’ first meeting facilitated by a secretly plotted Puccini serenade. The transatlantic voyage that followed brought them to Beatrice, Missouri, and it was there they put down roots for the generations that followed.
As the century progresses, so does the family’s story. Babies are born and futures are forged. Friendships are formed that affect the course of the family’s fortunes. But, as the novel’s opening line reminds us, “always, there was music.”
Bottom Line: Readers will feel a part of this family. Characters are charming, and their stories are told with sentimentality.
Song of Achilles: Novel by Madeline Miller
Patroclus is the exiled son of a king. He is small, slight, weak, and knows he is a disappointment. When he is fostered at the court of King Peleus, he keeps his head down and expects to be overlooked. Peleus’ son Achilles is everything Patroclus is not. Golden-haired, athletic, smart and kind, Achilles succeeds at everything. Despite their differences, the boys become constant companions. As they grow into young men, their bond deepens. Together they study the arts of war and medicine, and fall in love despite the objections of Thetis, a cruel sea goddess, and Achilles’ mother. She knows Achilles is fated to become Aristos Achaion, the greatest of the Greeks, and thinks Patroclus will interfere with destiny. When the battlefield calls, Achilles and Patroclus answer, and find that a terrible test of their bond waits.
Bottom line: In this enthralling tale, Patroclus and Achilles rival Romeo and Juliet for the title of literature’s greatest star-crossed lovers. An accessible reworking of the Iliad, knowledge of mythology is not necessary, although those familiar with Homer will find plenty of rewards.
The Expats by Chris Pavone
Can an ex-CIA agent ever leave a life of lies behind? Kate Moore has quit her D.C.-based job as a CIA spy and relocated to Luxmebourg with her husband, Dexter, a computer security analyst. Living the life of an expatriate housewife is new to her, and she attempts to spend her time making friends and a home for her family. When a new American couple arrives in town, she can’t shake the suspicion that they are not who they say they are. As she investigates, she unravels the life of lies she has built, and she is forced to face hard truths about her marriage and her past.
Bottom line: A spy thriller with a female protagonist has crossover appeal for fans of thrillers and fans of women’s fiction. The setting and characters feel contemporary and intelligent, and the plot twists will keep readers guessing.
Me and You by Niccolò Ammaniti
Lorenzo Cuni is a fourteen-year-old whose parents care about appearances, so he allows them to believe he is going on a ski vacation with the popular kids. After insisting on being dropped off around the corner from their meeting spot, he sneaks back home and into his apartment’s supply-stocked cellar, where he plans to spend a week perpetrating his deception. Avoiding the doorman is easy, but soon his estranged stepsister, Olivia, discovers him. Both are trying to escape their own problems, and they must find a way to confront them instead.
Bottom line: A believable portrayal of a teenage outsider. Watching Lorenzo think through his choices and start to notice a world beyond his own is a treat.
Forgotten Country: A Novel by Catherine Chung
Hannah and Janie are sisters. Family lore foretells that a daughter is lost in every generation, and so Janie, the responsible eldest sister, is charged with keeping Hannah safe. As Korean immigrant children in Michigan, Janie and Hannah played on the swing set and made up games together, but as Janie later realizes, “we played at abandoning each other, over and over again.” As they grow older, they grow apart, and in college, Hannah suddenly disappears. The weight of family expectations settles on Janie’s shoulders, and when their father is diagnosed with cancer, Janie is tasked with finding Hannah. On a mission to find her sister, Janie uncovers uncomfortable truths about her family, and about herself.
Bottom line: There is much for book clubs to discuss about the obligations to family versus the obligations to self. Book clubs can also explore Korean folklore, and contemporary issues of immigration and identity.