5 Books We Couldn't Put Down Last Month
From Jasmine Guillory's Royal Holiday to Elizabeth Strout's Olive, Again. As recommended by the BuzzFeed Books newsletter.
Faced with an extreme case of writer’s block and the wide, wonderful world of dating apps, a graduate student named Richard wrestles with a crucial question for the millennial generation: When your twenties are supposed to be one predictable upward trajectory toward nice restaurants, cushy apartments, and pairing off via algorithm, what happens when you swerve and get off-track? And what place does love — in all of its imperfect, incalculable glory — actually have in all of that?
Gregor’s debut novel is less of a romp through the modern New York gay scene than it is a biting documentation of the realities of today’s dating culture. Readers will groan along with the near-Sisyphean amounts of swiping it takes for Richard to finally meet Blake, a hot lawyer who might finally offer him that all-elusive “security of an exclusive personal alliance.” But things get fascinatingly complicated as Richard also becomes further entangled with Anne, a disarmingly earnest fellow student who’s game to trade academic help for companionship.
When we look back on the canon of modern dating-while-living-in-New-York escapades, Going Dutch will stand out as a vivid portrait of a life and time that — for many — feels almost too familiar. It’s bleak out there. But at least the brunch is good. Get your copy now. —Delia Cai (@delia_cai)
Ann Patchett’s newest novel is not a fairy tale in the traditional sense, but it does have the stuff fairy tales are made of — a mansion, precocious siblings, a rags-to-riches story, and a wicked stepmother. Patchett blurs the genre with her classic brand of family saga — one full of richly developed characters and deeply felt observations on the connections between siblings and parents and spouses.
This story in particular is one about siblings. Danny Conroy, our narrator, and his sister Maeve grow up in the ornately decorated and elaborately designed Dutch House, a property outside of Philadelphia purchased by their real estate mogul father. But in the wake of their mother’s sudden departure and father’s untimely death, the Conroy siblings are forced out of their childhood home by their stepmother, and thus the reader follows Danny and Maeve through the next five decades as they attempt to rebuild their lives and escape their memories of the Dutch House, all while staying fiercely loyal to one another.
The Dutch House does not hinge on twists and turns — though figures from the Conroy siblings’ past do reappear as somewhat of a surprise later in the novel. Patchett takes her time with the story’s steady examination of family and childhood. While Danny oscillates between past and present as he recounts his tumultuous coming-of age, Patchett complicates the role of the narrator: “But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we're not seeing it as the people we were, we're seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” The vast timespan of the novel becomes an act of introspection as we see Danny come to understand himself through the way he views his past.
There is truly so much to praise in Patchett’s writing — her unnervingly self-aware voice that brings Danny to life as our storyteller, the dry bursts of humor that she works into dialogue. But by far the most moving aspect of the book is Patchett’s depiction of the relationship between the novel’s central siblings. Perhaps it is unbelievable that through their lives, Danny and Maeve never seem to tire of each other or truly fight. But the palpable connection between the Conroy siblings is one of the most memorable portraits of familial love in recent fiction. Patchett’s strength lies in her ability to dissect the nuances of families broken by dysfunction like in her last novel Commonwealth. And as she weaves a story of siblings who become each other’s North Stars, Patchett adds another title to her collection of modern classics. Get your copy now. —Jillian Karande
If you’ve read Jasmine Guillory’s previous books (The Wedding Date, The Proposal, and The Wedding Party), you already know she’s the reigning queen of rom-coms and that her stories all take place in the same universe, with each new book being about a character from the previous one. Royal Holiday continues that tradition, this time focusing on Vivian, Maddie’s mom, who was first introduced in The Wedding Party.
When Maddie gets the opportunity to style a member of the British royal family over Christmas, she invites her mom to come with her and stay in the Queen’s country estate. All Vivian expects is a quiet Christmas in the British countryside — until she meets Malcolm, the private secretary to the Queen. The two are instantly attracted to each other, and after giving her a private tour of the estate, they begin exchanging notes by footman. Soon, it blossoms into a full-blown romance.
Guillory, whose protagonists are all black women, has diversified a genre that featured mostly white characters for far too long. Royal Holiday continues that trend, this time with two black main characters, and centers the story on a single mother in her fifties. For fans of all things British and royal, this book leans in hard to that — the old-timey note-passing feels kind of Jane Austen-y in the juiciest way. Vivian is such a well-developed main character, true to herself, and so easy to root for as she opens her heart to love (and sex!) for the first time in years. It’s a bit of a slower burn than Guillory’s previous books about younger protagonists, but Vivian and Malcolm’s will-they-or-won’t-they romance is heartwarming, sexy, and the perfect holiday season read. Get your copy now. —Julia Reinstein (@juliareinstein)
In 1991, Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, accused by a Korean-born convenience store owner named Soon Ja Du of attempting to shoplift a bottle of orange juice, was shot and killed by Du. Harlins died with $2 in her pocket. Du received no prison time for Harlins’ murder. This often-overlooked piece of Los Angeles history, occurring 13 days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King, was a key cause of the 1992 LA riots. In Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha draws a close line between the 1991 crime, fictionalized in the story, to the political climate of modern-day LA.
The novel focuses on two families, one black and one Korean American, whose lives are once again upended by a crime based on Harlins' murder nearly three decades later. While the story predominantly takes place in the summer of 2019, it opens with a riot in LA’s Westwood neighborhood in 1991, and some chapters return to that decade to provide pieces of the narrative’s rich puzzle.
Several well-drawn, lived-in characters populate the novel: Grace, a twentysomething pharmacist who doesn't understand why her older sister Miriam is estranged from their mother; Shawn, who is trying to keep his family together after his cousin Ray is released from prison; and Jules Searcey, a journalist who keeps prying.
Cha’s prose is poignant and riveting. She writes with radiant clarity about the trauma that these crimes can inflict on children (“It worried Shawn, how easily kids absorbed the spilled poisons of the grown-up world”) and the emotional highs and lows that come with having siblings. Cha looks at the generational suffering of past crimes and seems to ask: How much of our prejudice do we inherit from our parents?
What starts as an ugly portrait of the hatred in the city and the country becomes a tender story about pursuing justice and the herculean task of finding forgiveness. Get your copy now. —Emerson Malone (@allmalone)
I didn't realize, earlier this year, that what I was really craving was a bunch of short stories told from the perspective of crotchety WASP-y Mainers. But then I read Olive Kitteridge — the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection from Elizabeth Strout — and my journey began. I went forward in the Strout canon and read My Name is Lucy Barton, and the quasi-sequel, Anything is Possible; I went backwards and discovered Amy and Isabelle, the novel that first put Strout on the national radar, and The Burgess Boys, Strout's first attempt to address how those WASP-y curmudgeons of Maine have grappled, in both the present and the past, with the arrival of people who aren't exactly like them.
I love steady, no-nonsense women, in my own life and on the page; I also love writers who tell the same story over and over again, a "criticism" levied at both Strout and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Munro. Strout's most recent book, Olive, Again, is less a sequel than a continuance of the small-town Maine world of Shirley Falls that Strout has spent the last two decades constructing. Characters from the previous books (including Isabelle, from Amy and Isabelle, now in a nursing home, and both of the Burgess Boys) intersect with Olive's world; sometimes Olive shows up briefly, to insult a painting or huff around, a presence for people to react or rail against. You don't have to know any of these additional characters to appreciate or understand the world of Olive, Again. But knowing them feels incredibly gratifying: like running into friends you haven't seen since high school and actually want to see.
Why do people love Strout, and her Maine, and her Olive? None of it's particularly easy to be around. But that doesn't mean it's not comforting. One of the things I appreciate most about Strout is her willingness to allow the deep sadness of aging, of the fear of change that accompanies it, to infuse the golden, ocean-wind-brisk worlds she builds with each book. In every Strout book, there's a story that makes me feel a profound, echoing emptiness, like a long shadow that chills you to the core and leaves as quickly as it arrived. To be clear, that's a compliment. The stories of Shirley Falls, including those of Olive, Again, blend together in my mind. But that doesn't mean that I'll ever forget them. Get your copy now. —Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) ●