#87 The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

Messud_final_front.inddMost girls, at some point in adolescence, survive a best friend breakup. Most women I know have been through multiple friend breakups: new friends are made, interests change. A certain rite of passage, it can be sad, heartbreaking even, yet inevitable. The Burning Girl is the story of a broken friendship between two young teenage girls, friends since preschool. The foundation of this friendship, however, felt stilted and false, totally ungrounded emotionally. It’s hard to mourn a broken friendship if that friendship doesn’t ring true and is just simply boring.

I’ve never been able to get into Messud’s writing (I hated the characters in The Emperor’s Children and couldn’t even make it half way through), though friends, whose opinions I trust, love her. In this, Messud’s astute adult voice underscores the thoughts and observations of her young teenage protagonist making her character’s inner dialogue too insightful for her age and completely unbelievable. Messud’s adult perspective in this teenage narrative, and the lack of real emotion evoked by the characters or the plot, made this one of my least favorite books of the year.

#86 The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

33253215The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a novel built on love and desire, heartbreak, and astounding coincidence (characters with unknown ties cross paths again and again and again). It’s the life story of Cyril Avery, born to a teenage girl pushed out of her close-knit community in rural Ireland for being pregnant. Cyril is adopted by wealthy and eccentric Mr. and Mrs. Avery and his youth is marked by loneliness and longing.

While Cyril is trying to establish his identity and purpose in life, he’s a pretty unlikable character. Once Cyril settles into his skin and becomes the person he’s meant to be, the novel picks up speed and I found I was more engaged and sympathetic to his story.  His story is very readable, and by the end I felt a genuine closeness to the quirky, flawed characters of Boyne’s imagination.

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#85 Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

34362982When thumbing through the book review section of The New York Times a few weeks ago I wasn’t surprised to read in Celeste Ng’s By the Book Q&A that she’s not a fan of Karl Ove Knausgaard: “I have never been able to get into Knausgaard, though many, many people whose opinions I trust adore his work. It’s just not for me.”

Knausgaard is a polarizing author. Based on conversations I’ve had with friends and fellow book lovers, it seems you either love him or you just really don’t. I’m solidly in the LOVE category. My husband, however, having never read a lick of Knausgaard’s writing, derides him with passion any chance he gets (most recently over dinner with friends at Leo’s Oyster Bar) because of an instant dislike of Knausgaard’s seriously earnest author photo and a general mistrust of anyone who pens a six-volume, many-paged autobiography. I’ve read the first two volumes of My Struggle, by the way, and they’re fantastic. I particularly loved volume 2.  Most of the people who dislike Knausgaard refer to his navel-gazing, a meticulous dissection of everyday life, calling his writing boring, misogynistic, banal.

What amazes me, again and again, about Knausgaard’s writing is that there is a pedestrian everyday-ness about it. He catalogues and peels apart the world around him in seemingly ordinary prose. And then, in peeling back and exposing ugliness and the ritual of the mundane, he shows us such great beauty and insight. That beauty is, at times, simply breathtaking.

In Autumn, the first in The Seasons quartet, Knausgaard, already a father of three, writes to his unborn daughter about the mundanity of our world, about the place she’ll soon be entering into and some of what she’ll encounter. As only Knausgaard can do, he describes for his daughter: Apples, War, Infants, Autumn Leaves, Lice, Vomit, Pain, Flaubert, the Labia (holy shit, read it), Forgiveness, and more. In each description, there is knowledge to be imparted and a personal connection being made, to others and to the world. And at the core of it all, fleshed out and laid bare, a deep and gorgeous truth.

One of my favorite books of the year.

With beautiful illustrations by Vanessa Baird and translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey

#84 Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

32620302Mr. Smith, the protagonist of Francis Spufford’s historical novel Golden Hill, set in small-town 18th century New York City, is a mystery. Neither the characters around this aptly named any man, nor the reader for that matter knows what he’s about when he shows up in New York newly off the boat from England with a note for a large sum of money to be paid by a particular man at a well-known counting house. The money can’t be paid out immediately, so Mr. Smith goes about his mysterious business, making friends and enemies, getting into trouble with the locals, all the while staying mum on his identity and his mission.

Throughout this novel, the question lingers: who is this Mr. Smith? When Mr. Smith’s purpose is revealed, finally, I wished Spufford had spent more time on that story than building a complete narrative out of Mr. Smith’s mysterious circumstances. As a whole, Golden Hill, quickly paced, smartly written, and rich with historical touchstones, offers a glimpse of early life in America and the makings of a complicated nation.