With Valentine’s Day approaching, arts critic Moira Macdonald sifted through her pile of new releases to find some especially appropriate reads for this most romantic of holidays.
Most stories are, in one way or another, about love. With Valentine’s Day approaching, I sifted through my pile of new releases to find some especially appropriate reads for this most romantic of holidays: a poignant novel about marriage, an essay collection about relationships, a thriller of love-gone-wrong, and a charmingly high-tech rom-com. All are worth a read, with open hearts.
Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage” (Algonquin, $26.95) is at its beating heart a love triangle between three 30-something black professionals in contemporary Atlanta. Calling it a triangle, however, diminishes its complexity and nuance; this is a book whose characters will whisper in your head long after you’ve put it down. (A lot of you will soon be hearing those whispers: On Feb. 6, “An American Marriage” was announced as the newest selection in Oprah Winfrey’s famous book club.)
Roy, a year into his marriage to Celestial, has everything he ever wanted: “a job that more than paid the bills, a four-bedroom house with a big lawn I cut myself on Sundays, and a wife who lifted me up like a prayer.” All this ends abruptly after Roy is falsely accused of a violent crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison. While he is incarcerated, Celestial finds solace with her childhood friend Andre — who introduced her to Roy — and those feelings blossom into something deeper. And then, unexpectedly, Roy returns early, finding a life quite different from the one he left.
“An American Marriage” is about love and much more: race, youth, what we owe to our loved ones and to our past, why a marriage can be, in Celestial’s words, “like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk” — you may be unsure who’s the rootstalk and who’s the branch. There isn’t an easy answer for Celestial, Roy and Andre; no rom-com way to sort out this trio so that everyone gets what they want.
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Instead, Jones simply lets us inside the characters’ heads — and their souls — as they try to move forward. The three voices speak in alternating chapters (along with some epistolary passages); each distinct, but possessed of the author’s lovely way of turning a phrase. Roy remembers his mother’s “lemon-drop hugs”; Celestial sees the ghost of her absent husband “in the guise of other men, almost always young, haircuts Easter fresh year-round.” And Andre muses, wisely, that “you have to work with the love that you are given, with all of the complications clanging behind it like tin cans tied to a bridal sedan.”
Tim Kreider, whose new essay collection is titled “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You” (Simon & Schuster, $26), became known to many readers through a New York Times piece about a different kind of love: “A Man and His Cat.” That charming essay, in which Kreider tells of unexpectedly becoming a Cat Guy, is here, and this Cat Girl enjoyed revisiting it. (Sample: “’You’re in love with that cat!’ my ex-girlfriend Margot once accused me. To be fair, she is a very attractive cat.” OK, sure, but was she as good-looking as my cat? But I digress.)
Though the cat wanders through the book and pops up in unexpected places, as cats do, the book mostly focuses on relationships of the human variety. Kreider puts us on a circus train to Mexico with a hypochondriac girlfriend, walks us through the vagaries of dating a prostitute (this chapter, and a couple of others, are helpfully asterisked in the table of contents with “Note to Mom — do not read”), and explores various love-life dilemmas: involvement with two people at the same time, being an atheist in love with a pastor, and what happens when you’re helplessly enthralled by a married woman who just wants to be friends.
Kreider, who for many years drew the cartoon “The Pain — When Will It End,” writes like a smart, funny friend; his essays feel like late-night conversations that you don’t want to end. Scenes from that circus train play like a movie: The clowns, Kreider writes, “were essentially theater kids — attention-getters and cutups — so someone was always singing, juggling, playing outdoor sports indoors, or whanging someone else over the head with a cookie sheet.” And his reflections on love in its many forms have a rueful, bracing honesty.
“I think now what I mistook for romantic love was something rarer and more valuable, something I couldn’t quite recognize for what it was,” he wrote of his passionate yet platonic relationship with his friend Lauren. “It was like thinking you’ve figured out a quick route to riches or lucked into another exotic backwater to conquer, never realizing that you’ve actually found America.” Kreider will speak at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Saturday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m.
Every roundup needs a thriller, right, even on Valentine’s Day? I confess to being addicted to “Gone Girl”-ish tales of twisted love and evil schemes (though the problem is, once you’ve read “Gone Girl,” nothing else is quite good enough). This month I tried out Alafair Burke’s “The Wife” (Harper, $26.99), which seemed appropriately twisty and schemey: Angela, the wife of a powerful man, reels when her husband, Jason, is accused first of sexual harassment, then sexual assault. Her instinct is to protect him — but, as scenes from her own Secret Past return (sorry; those words needed to be capitalized), she begins to doubt his innocence.
Burke (daughter of author James Lee Burke; mysteries clearly run in her bloodline) knows what’s she’s doing. “The Wife” is a mostly woman-centered story, also featuring the dogged NYPD detective Corrine Duncan and the return of sleek lawyer Olivia Randall (previously featured in Burke’s “The Ex,” and described by Corrine as “one of the biggest pain-in-the-ass defense attorneys in the city”). It glides along nicely, like a modern roller coaster whose sudden turns provide an agreeable, not-too-bumpy jolt. Unlike “Gone Girl,” I doubt I’ll ever read it again, but it’s high-quality distraction, right up to the inevitable movie version.
Speaking of movies, “Happiness for Humans” by P.Z. Reizin (Grand Central Publishing, $26) just came out in January, but is already fast-tracked for a screen adaptation. It’s a high-concept romantic comedy, with a modern twist: Aiden and Aisling are a pair of matchmakers, scheming to place Jen, a lonely Londoner, and Tom, an expatriate Brit, together. But though they have voices and personalities and remarkable resources, Aiden and Aisling are not people, but artificial-intelligence programs. (Note the first two letters of each of their names.) Escaping from computer labs onto the internet, they wreak havoc (imagine what fun can be had by destroying the credit and the vacation reservations of Jen’s cad of an ex) and play Cupid.
I’m not sure how all of this might translate onto a movie screen, but “Happiness for Humans” on the page is great fun, if a bit overlong. Zipping between the voices of the four main characters (and a few unexpected guests), it’s a charmingly screwball love story in which we learn that AIs are — in this book’s universe, anyway — just like us. Muses Jen, “Some are nice-natured — Aiden, for example, enjoys watching old Hollywood films and has a thing about cheese — and others are just massive arseholes.”
Wishing you all a little romance on Valentine’s Day — on the page, and elsewhere.