2022 was a pretty good year of reading. I’ll post my detailed stats later in the month, but here are my standout reads. Clearly, family dramas worked for me – they always do! – and I returned to the well several times throughout the year, If you like books that span decades, dip in and out of characters’ lives, contain secrets and traumas, and leave you more empathetic than when you started, then this list is for you.
In no particular order:
French Braid by Anne Tyler. Like so many Tyler novels, French Braid is about a family in Baltimore: the Garretts, which consists of Mercy and Robin and their three children, Alice, Lily and David. The book follows this family over the course of about 60 years, as the kids grow up and start their own families, and so on. That’s pretty much it – no dramatic plot twists, no big moments of reveal. But that’s what Tyler is so good at – the minutiae of life, the small moments that somehow are more memorable than the big ones. She’s an expert at exploring family dynamics, relationships, parenthood, and the need to forge one’s own identity. She always has great empathy for her characters, and your heart kind of breaks for each of them at some point as you read French Braid. It’s a poignant and wistful read, beautifully observed and expertly paced.
Out Of The Corner by Jennifer Grey. Out Of The Corner has everything I like in a celebrity memoir: humor, honesty, surprises and some dirt. Grey is a good writer and she doesn’t hold anything back. I was always happy to return to the book and I would have welcomed even more.
This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub. This is a sweet and touching book about the fleeting nature of life and the impossibility of spending enough time with the people you love. Unlike so many parent-child dynamics in contemporary literature, the core relationship is strong and uncomplicated. There is deep love and affection between them, and though there are questions between them that have remained unanswered for decades, there is no animosity or resentment. Straub does a nice job contrasting youth and middle age, exploring the shifts in worldview and priorities that takes place over those decades. This Time Tomorrow is a compelling, moving book that made me wistful and grateful for my parents’ health, however fragile. I especially recommend it to people who like time travel books, though I think that if you don’t especially enjoy them, you’ll still like this one.
Chorus by Rebecca Kauffman: Chorus is right in my wheelhouse: literary fiction, family dynamics, multiple viewpoints, shifting timeline. It’s about a family of 7 kids living on a Virginia farm with a depressed mother who takes her life when the kids were mostly young (this is not a spoiler). Chorus tells the story of this family from the standpoint of each of the kids, filling in moments big and small from different perspectives. It’s a quiet, understated novel, told simply, and I got completely sucked in.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason: A book about a woman’s mental illness sounds depressing, and certain parts definitely were, but I loved Sorrow And Bliss. It is a sensitive and sympathetic view of a woman who is often unlikeable, but who also doesn’t have the tools she needs to handle her illness. Martha is also quite funny, so the book is infused with a lot of humor. Sorrow And Bliss is searingly honest and realistic, and for this reason I just loved it. Mason’s narrative style varies throughout the book – sometimes it is told through random vignettes without much of a plotline, while other chunks follow a much more linear path. The combination of these two styles provides a textured and complex portrait of Martha and how her past and her condition made her who she is. Sorrow And Bliss was a perfect book – substantive, real, honest, funny, incisive, illuminating, and ultimately, hopeful.
Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro: I absolutely loved Signal Fires. It’s devastating in so many ways – loss, aging and estrangement loom large for these characters – but also so poignant and moving. I love Shapiro’s clear, detailed prose, her empathy and compassion for her families, and the seamless fluidity with which she traversed the decades. I would say that it was a perfect book, but there were times when she veered a little too far into the metaphysical for my taste. The rest of the book was so strong, though, that it compensated for those few times. (And they are actually sort of reassuring, if you can give in to them.)
Home Stretch by Graham Norton: Home Stretch opens in the 80s in a small town in Ireland with a car crash involving six people in their late teens/early 20s. Three are killed – a bride and groom who were to be married the next day, and a bridesmaid – and three survive. One of the survivors, the driver of the car, is a boy named Connor. Guilt over the accident ultimately drives him to leave Ireland, a departure that devastates his family but sets him off on a journey toward a new life. I really liked this one! Norton is a great storyteller. I felt totally invested in the characters and wanted things to work out for them. Their stories took some unexpected turns and there were even a few times when I gasped out loud. I loved how Norton writes – realistically, full of vivid detail, and with empathy for his characters. This was a five star read for me – it is a perfect contemporary character-driven family saga.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson: The three main characters – Liam, Clara and Elizabeth – are all hurting in their own ways. Lawson slowly teases out Elizabeth and Liam’s pasts so that you understand what made them so damaged and lonely, Clara, meanwhile, is too young to really understand what’s going on around her, but she too feels bereft and confused. I loved the way Lawson built suspense while poking gentle fun of the people in the small town. While there is a lot of sadness, there is also hope by the end of the book that the characters find some sort of solace in each other. This is not a flashy book. The plot and writing style are both simple, and it’s not action-packed. But it is moving and memorable. I am so glad I read it! I felt very invested in the story and was sad when it ended.
What were your best reads of 2022?