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27 Spring Books We Couldn't Put Down

Kaitlyn Greenidge's spectacular second novel, an eco-thriller from Jeff VanderMeer, a chilling deep dive into a true ghost story, and so much more.

Posted on March 10, 2021, at 4:51 p.m. ET

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Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf; March 2)

Knopf, Andrew Testa

In his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, Kazuo Ishiguro embarks on an exploration of humanity and technology through the perspective of Klara, a solar-powered Artificial Friend (AF) who is distinct from other AFs in her keen observational abilities and her yearning to understand humanity. She's intent on fulfilling her purpose of making her owner happy, but this purpose becomes less straightforward when she’s purchased for 13-year-old Josie, who has a vague illness that dominates her and her mother's lives. Through Klara’s eyes, we see the near-future world of Ishiguro’s imagination: intelligent tech, jobs made redundant by robots, genetic modification, the continued destruction of the planet. But insofar as Klara is able to feel — and it’s hard to leave this book doubting those feelings, despite her mechanical parsing of them — she’s hopeful for the future, reverent of a sun she views as benevolent. The questions underpinning the book are heavy and familiar territory for Ishiguro: What does it mean to be human, to be happy, to love? But there’s a lightness in Klara’s (programmed) youthfulness, and it’s up to the reader to decide if this makes her story more bitter than sweet. —Arianna Rebolini

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But You're Still So Young: How Thirtysomethings Are Redefining Adulthood by Kayleen Schaefer (Dutton; March 2)

Dutton, Joel Barhamand

Kayleen Schaefer’s latest is a sharp and empathetic investigation into what being in your thirties means today. Weaving together personal history, original reporting, and cultural analysis, Schaefer tackles five of the major milestones we’ve been told define adulthood — finishing school, leaving home, getting married, gaining financial independence, and having kids — and explores their modern significance, presenting a compelling argument that these achievements aren’t actually as meaningful as we’ve been led to believe. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s ever considered bucking tradition — or anyone who’d like to better understand why this isn’t a bad thing. (Read an excerpt: Why Are Millennials So Worried About Moving Back In With Their Parents?) —A.R

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Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (Avid Reader Press; March 2)

Avid Reader Press, Elliot & Erick Jimenez

Patricia Engel’s piercing story of family, sacrifice, and Latin American immigration is told in two captivating timelines. It begins in Colombia, where 15-year-old Talia has broken out of a youth detention center (“It was her idea to tie up the nun” is a hell of an opener) on an urgent mission to make it back to Bogota in time for her flight to the US, where she can finally join the rest of her family. Why has her family been separated — she and her father in Colombia, her mother and siblings in Texas? Engel leads us to the answer in her second timeline, which follows her parents’ decision to leave an increasingly dangerous life in Bogota in hopes for a better future in Texas. But as their visa expiration nears and then passes, and as their family grows, they find themselves moving again and again to avoid having their undocumented status discovered. It’s a riveting and necessary read — an eye-opening account of what being “undocumented” really looks like, and a paean to love and endurance. —A.R.

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Justine by Forsyth Harmon (Tin House; March 2)

Tin House, Emma McIntyre

Celebrated illustrator Forsyth Harmon makes her writing debut with Justine, a compact but powerful illustrated novel. In (pitch-perfect) 1990s Long Island, teenager Ali is enchanted by Justine, the impossibly cool and beautiful cashier at her local Stop & Shop. When Ali gets a job at the same supermarket, Justine warms up to her as something between a friend and a project, and she welcomes Ali into her world of skater boys, awkward sex, pop culture obsession, and bad behavior — shoplifting, smoking, breaking into an abandoned psychiatric center. Justine is larger than life. Ali, at the mercy of her whims, can’t make sense of her attraction to her; it’s at once romantic, sexual, and aspirational. It's a bittersweet, nostalgic coming-of-age story. —A.R.

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The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press; March 2)

Grove Press

In 2015’s The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize–winning debut novel, an unnamed spy documents the hypocrisies of the Vietnam War from his unique vantage point as a French Vietnamese double agent. He’s embedded in a South Vietnamese operation based in California while secretly working on behalf of the communist North Vietnamese. After surviving torture in a reeducation camp, the spy sets sail for France on a refugee boat with Bon, one of his best friends and fellow South Vietnamese soldier, who doesn’t know about the spy’s communist past.

And that’s where The Committed picks up, as our unnamed protagonist joins Bon in a seedy drug-selling operation and reads theorists like Fanon in his spare time. Part action-packed thriller, part trenchant critique on the myriad evils of imperialism, The Committed is an incisive and thought-provoking read. —Tomi Obaro

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The Ghost Variations by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon; March 9)

Pantheon, Kyle Minor

Kevin Brockmeier’s latest (very) short story collection delivers 100 ghost stories, at turns melancholy, playful, and tender. There’s the woman who’s doomed to loop through a romantic regret from her youth, the ghost who’s dismayed at the amount of bureaucratic red tape involved in the afterlife, and the spirits that are bound to parakeets or living in walls. These brief encounters gesture at the profound, leaving space for the unknown and unknowable — ruminating on what it means to be human and alive by focusing on what remains when we’re not. —A.R.

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The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; March 9)

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I adored Hala Alyan’s 2017 novel, Salt Houses, a moving portrait of a family contending with their heritage. In The Arsonists’ City, she returns to similar themes of home, history, and identity. After Idris Nasr’s father dies, he becomes the patriarch of his large and far-flung family. When he decides to sell the family home in Beirut, everyone flocks from Brooklyn, Austin, and California to change his mind. Once the family’s all there, secrets and tensions erupt and threaten their already eroding foundation. These domestic dramas reflect and are heightened by the conflicts rattling Lebanon as Alyan masterfully weaves the personal and sociopolitical to create an intricate family history. —A.R.

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Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman (Beacon Press; March 9)

Beacon Press, Jess Zimmerman

Before I read Jess Zimmerman’s essay collection, I’m not sure I appreciated how many monsters from Greek mythology were actually women. Furies, Medusa, the Sphinx — we had them all! Zimmerman recontextualizes these fables through more contemporary topics like hunger, ambition, and rage. Every essay in this inclusive, wide-ranging collection made me think a little harder about my own monstrousness. (Who knew I could learn something from a harpy, a monster that men have definitely not compared me to in my life!) When you read it, you’ll come away with a renewed appreciation of these female monsters — but in all likelihood, you’ll also come away with a little more insight on yourself, too. —Scaachi Koul

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The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson (Milkweed Editions; March 9)

Milkweed Editions, Sarah Whiting

Award-winning Dakhóta memoirist Diane Wilson makes her fiction debut with The Seed Keeper, a stunning, lyrical story centered on Rosalie Iron Wing, a Dakhóta woman endeavoring to reclaim her heritage. After the untimely death of her husband, Rosalie returns to the cabin she shared with her father until, at 12 years old, she was placed into foster care. There she comes to terms with both the trauma and blessings of her past, searching for the community and traditions that are her birthright. Wilson expands Rosalie's story, weaving in voices of the Dakhóta women who came before her, spanning decades. A significant thread connecting these women is their perennial bond to the earth, specifically seeds. And though this book pulls no punches in its condemnation of white settlers and colonizers and their continued abuse of the land, it is also heartfelt and hopeful, carrying a steadfast belief in the strength of family, will, and growth. —A.R.

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My Heart by Semezdin Mehmedinović, trans. Celia Hawkesworth (Catapult; March 9)

Catapult, Edvin Kalić

My Heart was my introduction to prolific Bosnian writer Semezdin Mehmedinović but, after reading it, I wasn't surprised to learn he is a celebrated poet. The prose in this autobiographical novel is lyrical, resonant, evocative — a necessary quality for a story so rooted in the mind. (Credit must go to Celia Hawkesworth for her beautiful translation, as well.) The book focuses on a 50-year-old writer grappling with the physical and philosophical effects of a recent heart attack, coming to terms with his mortality. I know this sounds exceedingly bleak. Trust me when I tell you the beauty outweighs the grim. Our narrator refuses to indulge in self-pity, though we'd be hard-pressed to begrudge him if he did: After surviving the Siege of Sarajevo and then arriving in the US as refugees with no money, he and his family have experienced more than their fair share of hardship. And yet his reflections are ultimately life-affirming, lingering in memories of profound love and strength, ever hopeful about the human capacity for finding and creating meaning. —A.R.

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The Fourth Child by Jessica Winter (Harper; March 9)

Harper, Adrian Kinloch

Jessica Winter’s magnificent sophomore novel is a decades-spanning story about a mother and daughter: Jane, a devout Catholic whose life narrows when she gets pregnant in high school in the ’70s and marries the father, and Lauren, a high schooler in 1991 navigating social strata and a too-close drama teacher. Jane, obsessed with the saints, sees holiness in suffering and self-abnegation and spends her young adulthood finding ways to punish herself; eventually, she spins her beliefs outward as she joins the increasingly violent anti-abortion movement and adopts a young girl from Eastern Europe, alienating Lauren in the process.

Winter gives us so much to chew on here — faith, adoption, sexuality, motherhood, abuse, autonomy — and the story warrants taking time to digest to see how each moment informs and deepens another. As much as it is about the mother-daughter relationship, it’s more profoundly about the relationship with the self: all the varied, complicated ways we protect, punish, forgive, and share ourselves. It’s my favorite fiction of the year so far. —A.R.

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My Friend Natalia by Laura Lindstedt, trans. David Hackston (Liveright; March 23)

Liveright, Heini Lehväslaiho

Finnish writer Laura Lindstedt’s American debut is a hypnotic, disorienting, often paranoid story about the precarious balance of power between an unnamed, nongendered therapist and their bewitching new patient, Natalia. She shows up at the therapist’s office like a whirlwind, requesting help for her dysfunctional sex life, but from the very first appointment — in which Natalia lies on the couch with an alarm clock on her stomach — she consistently dominates the sessions with monologues about formative erotic moments in her life, rarely letting the therapist interrupt. And as her story unfolds — introducing a connection between Natalia’s family and the therapist that’s too unlikely to be a coincidence — the therapist loses control of the experimental methods they’re supposed to be directing. It’s a surprisingly suspenseful story touching on psychology, philosophy, and sex. —A.R.

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Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia (Flatiron; March 30)

Flatiron, Andria Lo

Gabriela Garcia, a prolific poet and fiction writer, delivers her highly anticipated debut novel, follows three generations of Cuban and Cuban American women. Jeanette is determined to understand her family history, but her mother — who’s still processing the emotional effects of leaving Cuba — won’t give up much. When Jeanette travels to Cuba to visit her grandmother, uncomfortable secrets and betrayals come to light. In breathtaking prose and evocative imagery, Garcia allows the reader to travel through history alongside these complicated, resilient women as they navigate a legacy of trauma. —A.R.

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A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House; March 30)

Random House, Megan Leigh Barnard

Cultural critic and occasional BuzzFeed News contributor Hanif Abdurraqib's latest essay collection turns his attention to Black cultural icons — entertainers, artists, creative visionaries — and makes apparent their significant, though often overlooked, influence on American culture as a whole. These essays are odes to well-known figures like Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and Josephine Baker (whom the book is dedicated to) as well as those who haven't been given the mainstream attention they deserve. Abdurraqib's great strength is his ability to present broad, canny observations through the lens of his personal experience, and his intimate exploration of what these specific moments meant to him as a Black Muslim coming of age in the US is what lingers long after you've finished the book. —A.R.

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The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade (W.W. Norton; March 30)

W.W. Norton, Holly Andres

Kirstin Valdez Quade's debut novel hooked me on page one, where she introduces 33-year-old Amadeo Padilla, a character unlike any I've read before. The book takes place during Holy Week in New Mexico, and Amadeo — an unemployed, mostly absent father who drinks a little too much and lives with his mother — has been given the role of Jesus in the town's Good Friday procession. He sees the role as catharsis, a chance for absolution, and he gives himself over to the performance to a disturbing extent. What complicates all of this is the unexpected arrival of his pregnant 15-year-old daughter, Angel, who is utterly charming and refuses to give Amadeo's martyrdom the respect he feels it deserves.

The story follows this flawed but endearing family over the course of the the baby's first year, during which multiple generations — Amadeo; Angel; Amadeo's mother, who's hiding a secret; Angel's mother, on bad terms with both Angel and Amadeo; and Amadeo's great-uncle, a stoic father figure still reeling from the death of his own son — are forced to coexist despite how uncomfortable this may be. It's a wholehearted, radiant, and darkly funny exploration of family, faith, and forgiveness.

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Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Algonquin; March 30)

Algonquin, Syreeta McFadden

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated second novel is a revelatory and enchanting piece of historical fiction, set in Reconstruction-era New York and centered on Libertie Sampson. Libertie is being raised by her single mother, a practicing physician who's made no secret of her expectation that Libertie will follow in her footsteps. But Libertie isn't drawn to science and wants the chance to direct her own life. She decides to move to Haiti with a man who wants to marry her, only to find out her husband is just another person to control her. Freedom is a core theme of the book, and Libertie is consistently learning how complicated it is: As she meets formerly enslaved people who've escaped the south, she contemplates what it means to have been born free. At the same time, she knows that freedom is constrained, especially when navigating colorism and classism within her community. —A.R.

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Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer (MCDxFSG; April 6)

MCDxFSG

If you’re looking for a creepy speculative thriller, it doesn’t get much better than Jeff VanderMeer. In Hummingbird Salamander, he tackles climate change, tech, and conspiracies, told from the perspective of a security consultant (she doesn't tell us her real name, offers "Jane Smith" instead) who receives a mysterious package from a dead ecoterrorist that sets her on a dangerous treasure hunt. VanderMeer expertly plays with the timeline here, teasing details through Jane's narration, which explicitly acknowledges the reader. We know she's recounting this story from a specific point in the future, and we know that wherever that is, things are not going well. But the journey to that future is exhilarating. —A.R.

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Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason by Gina Frangello (Counterpoint Press; April 6)

Counterpoint Press, Courtesy of the publisher

Gina Frangello's no-holds-barred debut memoir delves into the affair that ultimately upsets her entire life, examining factors that might have influenced her decision (her mother's unhappy marriage, a history of trauma, the death of her best friend) and recounting the blowback in devastating detail. Underlying this generous and intimate personal history is a censure of the broad cultural suppression (and demonization) of women's rage, passion, and autonomy; and the gleeful eagerness to punish women who have transgressed. Frangello presents rationalizations for her actions, but she isn't asking to be excused: This isn't so much about seeking absolution — though she knows she's being judged — as much as it's about reclaiming a story that is too easily appropriated and rewritten by outsiders, often through a lens of misogyny. It's a powerful, electric testimony. —A.R.

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Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola (William Morrow; April 13)

William Morrow, Folaju Oyegbesan

British cultural critic Bolu Babalola's delightful fiction debut is a work of power and pleasure. Drawing largely from African and Asian folklore — featuring Thisbe, Scheherazade, Ọṣun, Nefertiti, and more — Babalola crafts entirely modern love stories without any of the mistreatment of women that pervades so much mythology. The collection also includes three original stories from Babalola, all of which are more than deserving of their place next to the classics. As Babalola herself describes it, the book is “a step towards decolonizing tropes of love.” It's also a lot of fun. —A.R.

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Gone Missing in Harlem by Karla FC Holloway (Northwestern University Press; April 15)

Northwestern University Press, Russell Holloway

Karla Holloway’s sophomore novel defies genre — it’s equal parts transportative historical fiction, unputdownable mystery, and damning examination of anti-Blackness in the US. It centers on the Mosby family in early 20th-century Harlem, having left the South during the Great Migration only to land in a neighborhood struggling with corruption, poverty, violence, and racism, not to mention the flu pandemic. When young Percy witnesses a murder, his mother, DeLilah, decides the only way to keep him alive is to send him away. Years later, her daughter Selma — who’s grown up knowing she can never live up to the memory of her brother — steps away from her own baby to run into a grocery store and returns to the sidewalk to find the stroller empty. The family is desperate for help, but they can’t get the authorities to care about this missing Black baby — until the city’s first Black police officer takes the case. It’s a spellbinding story about family, grief, and perseverance, full of rich and resilient characters you’ll fall in love with. —A.R.

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Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (Algonquin; April 20)

Algonquin, CMYK

Fiona Mozley’s hypnotic debut, Elmet, was a standout novel of 2018, one of my favorites of the year. Her follow-up exceeded my expectations. Hot Stew takes place in London’s Soho, where a young millionaire intent on converting an old building into luxury condos finds out the hard way that its tenants — specifically two sex workers whose brothel is based in the building — won’t leave without a fight. It's a story about a changing neighborhood, but Mozley knows the best way to paint a portrait of a place is to follow those who call it home. It's a joy to see her doing just that — passing the narrative like a baton from one character to the next, building a seamless story that's buzzing with energy. —A.R.

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Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (Knopf; April 20)

Knopf, Barbora Mrazkova

From its beautiful, painful opening sentence — “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart” — Michelle Zauner’s memoir will break your heart and mend it. An extension of her 2018 New Yorker essay of the same name, the book is part eulogy for her mother and part love letter to Korean food and culture. Zauner (who fronts the indie-rock band Japanese Breakfast) writes with sobering clarity about her spiraling depression, her mother’s cancer diagnosis, and the food they ate together, with the titular Korean American supermarket at its core. She shares in elegant prose her firsthand experience of growing up with a dual ethnicity and longing to feel at home; Oregonians, in particular, will enjoy reading about her upbringing in Eugene and her countless local references. It’s a quick read and an evergreen tale of grieving, coping, and exploring the culinary palates that make up Zauner’s vibrant world. —Emerson Malone

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Goodbye, Again: Essays, Reflections, and Illustrations by Jonny Sun (Harper Perennial; April 20)

Harper Perennial, Rozette Rago

Illustrator Jonny Sun’s latest book is perfect for starting, stopping, and revisiting. In short essays and illustrations, Sun delivers insights both relatable and enlightening, hiding big meanings in humble observations. A story about discovering a bedside power outlet the night before a move leaves you ruminating on lost or wasted opportunity; Sun’s recollection of a cactus from his childhood that he thought had died is a funny story about how kids are oblivious but also a quiet lesson on love. Each page is connected to the next by this idea of transience — change, growth, and the ways we resist and accept both. —A.R.

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White Magic by Elissa Washuta (Tin House; April 27)

Tin House, KR Forbes

In this potent, illuminating memoir in essays, Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, digs into her relationship with magic and the occult. Writing candidly about her experiences of abuse, addiction, and mental illness, she recounts the role of magic — specifically Native magic, one that hasn’t been appropriated or “built on plunder” — in her pursuit of meaning and survival. Washuta also pulls from (pop) cultural touchstones, exploring how movies, games, and music informed her identity and understanding of the world. Touching on love, heritage, identity, and faith, White Magic is resonant and weighty. —A.R.

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Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf; April 27)

Knopf, Elena Seibert

Listen, I know you probably don’t need another book about feeling sad and isolated — especially during month 12 (TWELVE!) of a global pandemic — but I’m going to ask you to make room for one more. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, her main character lives in solitude but seems to always yearn for more, having distant relationships with friends, exes, and family members, all of which feel unfulfilling. (Sound familiar?) Her first book written in Italian and then translated to English, it has all the elements you love from a Lahiri book: compelling characters who speak volumes in their silence, prose that reads like art and makes you want to reread certain paragraphs three or four times, and some comforting melancholy on every page. You’re going to be sad anyway — might as well do it with a really good book. —S.K.

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The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale (Penguin Press; April 27)

Penguin Press

You’ll want to start this chilling true story when you know you can dedicate the next 48 hours or so to finishing it. Kate Summerscale’s latest historical deep dive follows the quirky and endlessly curious ghost hunter Nandor Fodor as he investigates an apparent poltergeist haunting a young mother named Alma Fielding in suburban London in 1938. Vigilant in his efforts to scientifically determine proof of the supernatural (Fodor was a lead researcher at the International Institute for Psychical Research), he moves into the house with his ragtag team of assistants and colleagues. They each witness — sometimes gleefully, sometimes in horror — objects flying through the air, bugs appearing as if from nowhere, a cold grip on the shoulder. But as Fodor digs deeper, he discovers a different kind of darkness in Alma’s past that slowly obsesses him: a history of trauma and abuse no less terrifying for being of this world. Summerscale’s thorough account brings Fodor and those around him to life while tracking shifting cultural views and scientific understandings of spiritualism, psychology, and sexuality. It is a feat of narrative history. —A.R.

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Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen (Knopf; May 4)

Knopf, Tim Coburn

Things We Lost to the Water introduces an exquisite new voice in author Eric Nguyen; his debut novel is a luminous, balletic portrayal of an immigrant Vietnamese family in the US. When Huong arrives in New Orleans in 1978, she’s alone with her two sons, Tuan and Binh. Her husband, Cong, stays behind, and Huong is lost in the false hope of their eventual reunion. As years pass, it becomes clear that she, Tuan, and Binh are on their own. The trio grow and define themselves around their inherent absences — a lost father, partner, heritage, and home. They’re pulled farther apart from each other in their pursuits of meaning and identity until catastrophe draws them back together and tests their bonds. Nguyen navigates their multiple perspectives with dexterity and emotional clarity, aching but never maudlin. I loved every page. —A.R.

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