Now might be just the time to go somewhere else — through a novel set in the past, be it near (1990s Hollywood) or far (1740s New York).
I love novels that transport me to another time and place, but I suspect that writing them is tricky. Half the fun of re-creating another era is doing the research, and if a writer has unearthed a tract on 19th-century office chairs after three days of looking, it must be hard to resist a detailed description of same. Quick advice! Leave it out.
When I find a good book in this category I’m willing to forgive a few missteps — thank you for banishing thoughts of North Korea for a few hours! Here are four novels set in the past that I devoured this summer. Of the four, only one achieves near-perfection, but they all kept me reading to the end.
First up, the near-perfect candidate. “Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York ” by Francis Spufford (Scribner, $26) is one of the best books I have read this year.
It’s 1746 in the colonial village at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, and islanders on the Broad Way keep a weather eye out for the stray cow. Early New York bears striking similarities to its modern counterpart — the villagers are a gossipy, scheming and on-the-make lot. The rich live well. The poor, including the city’s many slaves, cook the meals, clean the hearth and submit to their masters’ whims.
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Into this tightly knit (and tightly wound) community comes a mysterious young Englishman named Richard Smith, who right off the ship presents a bill for 1,000 pounds sterling to a local merchant, payable to the bearer. In 1746, it’s a fortune. It throws the merchant into a panic, and the rumor machine cranks up.
“Golden Hill” is an adventure, but it’s got more serious stuff on its mind. What is Richard Smith really up to, and who is telling the story? You’ll never get it out of me — read the book. Spufford has an authoritative grasp of life in 18th-century America, a wonderful way with dialogue and writes with a moral authority that will leave you thinking about this story long after you are done. His devotees include a couple of critics I admire, including Dwight Garner of The New York Times, and after reading “Golden Hill,” I fell in line, placing holds on every Spufford book in the library.
Moving forward in time and across the Atlantic, “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry (Custom House/Morrow, $26.99) takes the reader on a journey to 19th-century coastal Essex in England, where rumors of a fearsome sea monster trolling the tidelands have local seers prophesying doom, and upper-class Londoners journeying to the coast to try to spot the beast.
“The Essex Serpent” follows several characters. Cora Seaborne has lost her husband, and good riddance — he abused her terribly. Now a wealthy widow, she can indulge her interest in natural history and her conviction that the Essex serpent is a living fossil, a creature from another time. Cora leaves London for a seaside Essex village, son and nanny Martha in tow, and sets out on her explorations, striding the English countryside in boots and an old coat, hunting fossils in the manner of Mary Anning. She encounters an English village vicar on a windswept path. Of course, he’s married, and of course, they fall in love, an unfortunate development for the brilliant London doctor who worships Cora.
“The Essex Serpent” features gorgeous nature writing and engaging themes, notably the struggle of the educated classes to reconcile their Church of England faith with the notions of that rapscallion Charles Darwin. The story is weighed down by too much of a good thing — at times the author gets carried away with the gorgeousness of her own prose. (One of many descriptions of fog: “thick, particulate, full of pearly grains.” Katie, bar the door!) Nevertheless, if you are a nut for novels about unrequited love among the Victorians, this may be the book for you. Bonus points — a beautiful cover.
Moving back west across the pond, “Saints for All Occasions” by J. Courtney Sullivan (Knopf, $26.95) is a worthy entry in the great-Irish-American-novel sweepstakes. It follows the story of Nora and Theresa Flynn, two Irish sisters starved for opportunity in Ireland, who emigrate to America in the late 1950s.
Nora is pledged to marry Charlie, a neighbor and fellow emigrant, when they land in Boston. Theresa is beautiful, with an ebullient spirit and a taste for too much fun. Once the sisters land in Boston, they are enfolded within that city’s Irish-American community, but Theresa gets in Big Trouble and a shared secret divides the sisters to the point that they no longer talk to one another. Nora becomes a mother, Theresa becomes a nun, and “Saints” follows the fortunes of this family over five decades with compassion, humor and a deep understanding of Irish-American culture.
Finally, raise your hand if you want to return to the America of the 1990s. I’m guessing that there is not a groundswell for this prospect, but if you’re game, David Handler’s “The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes” (Morrow, $14.99 paperback original) will help you remember the sun-crazed Hollywood excess of what now seems like an innocent time.
The latest installment in the author’s Stuart Hoag mystery series, “Girl” follows Hoag’s misadventures among the rich and infamous. He’s a ghostwriter with entree into two cosseted worlds — publishing and Hollywood.
After many years, a Salinger-esque author and recluse drops a line to his two daughters and hints that he will surface. One daughter is a Martha Stewart-style dynamo who heads an entertainment-lifestyle empire and has married the coke-snorting star of a “Beverly Hills 90210”-style show. The other sister, Hoag’s ex-girlfriend and a poet, has taken a different path. The long-estranged sisters agree to meet, and Hoag, still enchanted by memories of his love affair, agrees to write the story of the father-daughters reunion. A die-hard New Yorker, he reluctantly travels to Tinseltown, where murder and mayhem darken and sensationalize the story.
The plot is influenced by a range of mystery masters, from Ross Macdonald to Agatha Christie, and avid crime-fiction readers will see some plot twists coming, but Handler’s acute eye for the pretensions of the rich and his ear for dialogue kept me turning the pages. Bonus points: Hoag’s partner in crime-solving is a Bassett hound named Lulu, whose hypersensitive nose is an essential tool in Hoag’s quest to solve the mystery.