The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout (pub 2014)
The story: Jim and Bob Burgess are middle-aged NYC lawyers, brothers who are as different as they can be. Jim is brisk, successful, rich, well-respected. Bob can't seem to do anything right. He's divorced, childless, sad, and lonely. Also, he accidentally killed their father when he was four-years-old. When their sister Susan's son accidentally commits a hate crime, Jim and Bob have to return to their tiny hometown in Maine to take care of things. Nothing works out right, and all their lives seems to crumble after they reunite in Shirley Falls to "fix" things with Susan.
Me: Oh man. I really loved this book. I had one of those glorious read-on-the-couch all afternoon days, and I was so bummed when I came to the end of the book—even though it was a great ending. Strout's last novel was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, which was fantastic, so I was really excited to read this one. This is one dysfunctional family, this Burgess clan, but you really have to root for them. Strout has created some big personalities that we come to know intimately. I miss them already, even though they were often kind of jerks— especially to each other. In the end, it's a story of redemption and family bonds that is beautifully, powerfully written.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. (multiple reread)
The story: Ah, the terrible tale of Ethan Frome, the quiet, desperate man who falls in love with his wife's cousin. If you don't know the story, you probably had a terrible high school English experience. ;)
Me: I've read and taught this so many times, but I still love it. It's so sad. So desperate. So hopeless. It's always great fodder for discussion with young minds who are reading it for the first time. We watched the movie together, too, and the kids found it hysterical.
Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu (pub. 2009)
The story: Mona Manoliu is a young Romanian girl who falls madly in love with Mihai, a young man she meets while on summer vacation in the mountains. They have a wild, passionate love affair before she returns home to Bucharest. It's 1977, and Romania is a mess as the Ceausescu regime starves and bleeds its people. Mona's father is a revolutionary, and they live in constant fear that he will be arrested, tortured, and executed. Over the next few years Mona falls more in love with Mihai, but at the same time she suspects that he is part of the secret police. Her life is a constant torment of love and fear, suspicion and regret. Eventually she realizes that her life is in danger, and she flees to the U.S. as an indigent immigrant. She has absolutely nothing but her college transcripts, and she manages to make a solid, but quite sad, life for herself in America. She discovers from friends that Mihai was shot, and eventually she returns to Romania to find out what happened to him.
Me: I loved this book. My son actually found it in a thrift store, read it, and thought I would love it. I did. Radulescu is a beautiful writer. The novel is filled with passion and color while Mona was in Romania, but it was drab and rather depressing in America. I thought that seemed fitting, though, as Mona's life as an immigrant was just hard. I'm not sure I've ever read a novel before that takes place in Romania, and I really appreciated the vivid descriptions of a beautiful country in a brutal political time.