There are two things Janes and I agree on about our reading in 2019: how hard it was to pick just a few standouts, and the fact that Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends was a shoo-in.
Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney
This was probably the most widely read of any book in my friend group the past year or two, and deservedly so. It’s a dry, funny, jaundiced portrait of a young millennial woman who learns through a disastrous friendship with an older, more worldly, artistic couple that despite her social anxiety and general lostness, she has much more power and privilege than she realized. Sally Rooney herself called it a love story, but in my opinion it’s the exact opposite of that–it’s, if not a satire, then a sharply unhappy comedy.
Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Elliman
This is the book that I wanted everyone to be reading as soon as I’d done reading it. It’s impossible to talk about this book without talking about its length–1000 pages–and its form–90% of it is a single long sentence taking place in the thoughts of a woman living in Ohio in Trump’s America, distracted by phone alerts, by thoughts of her children, by news about Trump, by memories, by visits from creepy neighbors, by thoughts about the horrible environmental and social consequences of every little thing that exists in her world; 10% of it follows a wolf on a journey with her two young cubs. But the length and form aren’t really why it’s great, except that the particular smooth yet jumpy stream of consciousness of its narrator seem to be the perfect way to describe what it really is like to live a smallish, normal life in the US at this exact moment. We know too much about the harm we’re doing, and about the harm Trump is doing, and it’s all this constant drumbeat inside our heads.
What I really loved, though, was being inside the head of a character who’s genuinely nice. The narrator’s voice is sweet, in a handwringing, maternal kind of way, and also extremely funny. I’ve read a lot of really long books that I liked, but even so, by page 800 or so I was always itching to be done. 800 pages into Ducks, Newburyport, I was just sad that I only had 200 more pages to live inside this character’s head.
Speaking of which, it’s been six weeks… is it too soon for me to read it again?
The Street – Ann Petry
Ann Petry somehow managed to never be taught in any of the American lit classes I took in high school and college, despite having become massively famous briefly in the 40s for this novel, which portrays the struggles of Lutie Johnson, an idealistic and naive young single mother living on a street in Harlem. A lot of people in the book club where I read this found Lutie too naive and impulsive to be sympathetic, but I thought Ann Petry’s portrayal of her main character–talented and beautiful and loving, full of dreams of a better life, wanting nothing more than to escape the dinginess and moral degradation (and villainous men) around her–was captivating and complicated.
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
In Life After Life, a woman is born and dies, in different ways, again and again, with her timelines sort of branching out from different possible tragedies that could have struck her, and her various possible deaths described in a chilling drumbeat. Then, as the book progresses, the concept becomes even more complicated–and then comes World War II. I loved Kate Atkinson’s musical, dreamy prose, but I also loved what this book did with its strange conceit.
Milkman – Anna Burns
Anna Burns’ Milkman is another in the genre of “Irish women writers being extremely, unexpectedly funny,” where Sally Rooney also lives. Unexpected not in the literal sense but because the voice is so sly and dry that you almost don’t realize it’s also hilarious till you’re already laughing. Milkman is more stylized and experimental than Conversations, and it deals with something theoretically much more serious–a lonely, misfit young woman being stalked by a mysterious man called the Milkman during the Troubles. And the gathering doom that surrounds its narrator in the form of rape culture, sectarian violence, and an undependable family, is so well-done. But really, I think this made my top five partly because it is so memorably witty.
The Overstory – Richard Powers
You’ll never see trees the same way again. Richard Power’s epic, elegiac environmentalist novel was an excellent and well-timed read for 2019.
Juno’s Swans – Tamsen Wolff
This book portrays a queer coming-of-age romance set partly in the theater scene in Provincetown, Cape Cod in staccato, insistent, memorable prose.
The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
Fleabag wasn’t the only woman to fall in love with a hot priest in popular culture recently. The wonderful heroine of Sarah Perry’s Victorian novel, a capable, bright woman named Cora who dreams of being a scientist, moves to a small town in Essex where a mythical serpent is rumored to haunt the waters, and gets drawn into the life of a minister and his wife. Read it for Cora, who’s one of my favorite heroines in recent memory.
The Far Field – Madhuri Vijay
Madhuri Vijay’s lovely and elegant debut portrays a privileged young woman who learns unsettling truths about herself and her family while on an ill-thought-out visit to turbulent Kashmir. My favorite part of this book was the writing, which just sparkles on the page.
Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh
I said it before and I’ll say it again: Ottessa Moshfegh is one of the strongest, most distinctive voices of any writer working today. My Year of Rest and Relaxation was my favorite book of 2018, and her short story collection didn’t disappoint: the stories in Homesick for Another World are masterfully crafted, filled with beautiful sentences about disgusting people. Her writing is caustic, misanthropic, and devastatingly funny, and her best stories–Plimpton Prize winner “Bettering Myself,” ”The Weirdos,” “An Honest Woman”–find a weird kind of pathos in even the most detestable protagonists. I tend to like novels more than short stories, but I often find myself wishing I hadn’t yet read my favorite Moshfegh stories so I could read them again for the first time.
Freshwater – Akwaeke Emezi
Freshwater is the most fiercely original novel I’ve read in a long time. It is, on its face, about a young woman named Ada who is possessed by ogbanje spirits, but that summary doesn’t do justice to the strange, beautiful narration, a first-person plural from the perspective of the spirits, who are borne directly from trauma. The spirits take on responsibility for all of the parts of Ada that she divorces from her self: vengefulness, sexual hunger, and rage. But it’s not enough to call them a metaphor for her fractured identity: they have personalities and desires of their own, and illustrate that people/women literally contain multitudes.
The Pisces – Melissa Broder
The Pisces is primarily known as the “fish-fucking” novel, and it is, in fact, a surreal and often grotesque little love story about a depressed woman who has an affair with a merman. But weirdly, when I was reading it, the fish-fucking left less of an impression than the despairing, reluctantly New Age-y, blackly humorous, kind of hateful narrator, who is both miserable and kind of in love with her own misery. Broder, who first came to fame through her depression-centric Twitter account @sosadtoday, has a uniquely conversational voice that combines the tone and diction of internet discourse with high literary sensibilities. This book isn’t for everyone (Nerdy Spice famously despises it [It may be in my bottom five… and not just for 2019 –Nerdy Spice], but if you like her, you’ll fall in love with her. There is no middle ground.
Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney
For a while, it seemed like every single New Yorker was reading this on the subway, and that’s for one simple reason: Sally Rooney is fun to read. Her writing is sharp, insightful, and very literary, but it also manages to be gripping (almost everyone I know who read the book finished it in under 48 hours). Conversations with Friends is unmistakably modern, and uses 21st century modes of communication to great effect, but the plot, which follows college students and occasional girlfriends Frances and Bobbi as they navigate their fraught relationships with a married couple, hearkens back to the 19th century social novel (and then subverts it, not least by introducing queer relationships into the mix). Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, was great and got all of the awards hype, but IMHO, Conversations is destined to be a modern classic.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli
Tell Me How It Ends, which describes Luiselli’s own experience as an undocumented immigrant working as a translator for Central American migrant children, children as young as six. She describes how they risk their lives to come here, often for reasons they don’t understand themselves, and then are forced to participate in a cruel, arbitrary, bureaucratic process, in which forty questions determine their fate. I’m a fan of dark humor, and “Tell Me How It Ends” would be very darkly funny if it were dystopian fiction. But as a nonfiction account of the absurdities inherent to our immigration system, it just hurts.
Promising Young Women – Suzanne Scanlon
For my birthday, my partner ordered me half a dozen books from the Dorothy Project, because they are incapable of publishing a book I don’t like. But my favorite Dorothy book I read this year was Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon, a series of fragments from the perspective of Lizzie, a twenty-something woman who is descending into slight-insanity. It’s well-trod territory that feels completely new, thanks to the formal experimentation and the distinctive, funny protagonist holding it all together. It takes a lot for me to love a book that includes a long rant about why the narrator hates Friends, but Scanlon pulls it off.