The Best Books to Read This Summer
As we gear up for a summer of dining, dancing, traveling, and generally making merry in ways not possible a year ago, we’re packing a bag of books for the road. Some of this year’s best run the gamut from mysteries to memoirs; with settings as desperate as Malibu, Rome, Cape Cod, and London. Here, find our selections for the beach, the countryside, the city, or wherever it is you find yourself whiling away the coming season.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk (May)
The urge to find something to liven up the home front is all too understandable these days. M, the narrator of Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, is a writer stuck at home in the English marshland and waiting out an unspecified catastrophe. Not so much a patron of the arts as an insinuator into them, M invites a famous painter to come and stay with her. L, the artist, shows up with a girlfriend whom he had failed to mention and little interest in taking inspiration from the company at hand. His disinterest leaves his host to grapple with her own bruised ego and the motivations that drove her to seek him out in the first place. As the novel’s endnotes make plain, the story is a reworking of the misadventure that took place when American heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan invited D. H. Lawrence to stay with her. In Cusk’s version, a tale of infatuation morphs into an anti-love story, a portrait of a woman forced to pull herself out from under weights of her own devising and set herself free, all the while stuck in place. —Lauren Mechling
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (May)
Never mind that a century separates Marian Graves and Hadley Baxter, the two headstrong protagonists of Maggie Shipstead’s sweeping novel Great Circle. One is a tomboy determined to join the ranks of the first female pilots, the other a disgraced star of a Twilight-like franchise whose romantic entanglements have upended her career. The pair are both orphans raised by uncles and united by an imperviousness to the sexism that casts a pall over their respective moments. Oh, and Hadley’s next part is the lead in a biopic of Marian. The Marian portions rove from Montana to Manhattan to Scotland and Antarctica, and read like a carnival of early 20th century American history, packed with bootleggers, treacherous boxcar rides, and tragic shipwrecks. The Hadley chapters, in turn, offer a delectable dissection of life as a celebrity, serving up an intelligent skewering of the Hollywood machine and allowing the overladen book to take flight. —L.M.
The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave (May)
Was Laura Dave’s novel dreamed up as a treatment for a prestige drama? Reading The Last Thing He Told Me you get the sense that somewhere out there a producer’s gears began to turn from the moment she sniffed out its alluring ingredients. The book is set mostly in northern California, where the protagonist, a furniture-maker-slash-artist called Hannah, has made a home with her software engineer husband, Owen. The public implosion of Owen’s company leads to his vanishing and ignites Hannah’s quest to figure out what’s happened—not just where he’s gone, but why he’s left behind a large duffel bag full of cash and a very light imprint on the world. The Last Thing He Told me goes down like the limited series it will likely become—Julia Roberts has already signed on—light and bright, despite its edgy plot. —Chloe Schama
Sunshine Girl: An Unexpected Life by Julianna Margulies (May)
Juliana Marguilies is so closely associated with the characters she played (on ER and The Good Wife) that it can be jarring to encounter her distinctive, personable voice as she recounts her nomadic childhood bouncing between a peripatetic, hippy mother and a romantic but detached ad exec father; bartending at the “world’s most glamorous” restaurant in the late ‘80s while trying to gain a foothold as an actress; and the fateful audition (involving a surprise call from George Clooney) that led to her role as Nurse Hathaway. A celebrity memoir with a humble core, this is more about the process of becoming a beloved actress than the spoils such recognition affords. —C.S.
Animal by Lisa Taddeo (June)
Following the release of her explosive debut, Three Women, in 2019—a non-fiction deep dive into the sexual lives of a trio of women Taddeo spent almost a decade observing and interviewing—Taddeo quickly established herself as one of the foremost cartographers of female desire in today’s America. Her first novel, Animal, was written alongside Three Women, and also sets out to unpick the tangled web of trauma endured by its protagonist; this time due to a horrific event she witnessed as a child, as well as her lover’s suicide while on a date at an Italian restaurant in the present day. Despite the unrelentingly grim series of events experienced by Joan throughout her life, mostly at the whims and cruelties of men, the book is buoyed by its riveting plot twists and her sheer, incandescent rage as Joan sets about reconciling her dark present with her even darker past. Animal is a heady, incendiary novel as immersive as it is intoxicating—a train wreck you can’t look away from. —Liam Hess
House of Sticks by Ly Tran (June)
A memoir that will break and warm your heart, House of Sticks is an immigrant tale of a Vietnamese family that settles in New York City in the early ’90s with little to no knowledge about life in America, let alone how to take the subway or what to wear to Coney Island. Tran’s family eked out a living, first by setting up a kind of domestic factory in their Queens apartment and then, eventually, by buying a nail salon. Through her hardscrabble youth and her battles with a controlling father—for years he denies her the glasses she clearly needs—Tran doesn’t lean too heavily on what she lacks, but rather reiterates the grit that got her through, recounting the delight she experiences when her life, even with its challenges, comes into focus. —C.S.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (June)
The term “beach read” is sometimes looked at askance, but when applied to Taylor Jenkins Read’s new novel, it’s the ultimate compliment. In Malibu Rising, the four Riva siblings—each one touched by their own version of fame, and each one looking for more than that fame can possibly provide—throw a massive party to ring in the end of the summer of 1983, and before long, things spiral deliciously out of control. Tracking the Rivas’ collective rise and descent over the course of one wild, flame-kissed night feels like being invited to the fete of the year. —Emma Specter
Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir by Ashley C. Ford
The harmful effects of mass incarceration in the U.S. have become more widely understood in recent years, but rarely do we acknowledge the families who struggle at home while their loved ones are locked up. Ashley Ford’s memoir poignantly explores her experience of dealing with her own father’s incarceration, as well as her history with body shame, sexual assault, and a host of other topics that could be hard to read in the wrong hands. Ford, though, is uniquely gifted at rendering family trauma in specific yet expansive terms that invite readers to examine their own lineage. —E.S.
With Teeth by Kristin Arnett (June)
Kristen Arnett’s debut Mostly Dead Things established her as an expert in all things related to the macabre—particularly when they’re queer-inflected and set in central Florida—and her latest effort, With Teeth, is a more-than-worthy successor. The novel revolves around Sammie, a dissatisfied suburban mother longing for more while questioning her commitment to her wife and son, and takes the reader on a winding journey through all the grief, love, fear and occasional rage that accompanies family-making. There’s never been a parenting novel quite like this before, though it seems more than likely to spawn a sub-genre. —E.S.
Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (June)
Brandon Taylor emerged last year with his gorgeously written coming-of-age novel Real Life, charting a weekend in the life of a gay, Black PhD student at a Midwestern college as he grapples with a recent bereavement, an act of sabotage on a lab experiment by a white student, and an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Just over a year later, Taylor is releasing his second book; a series of short stories that expand on the intimacy and psychological insight of Real Life to explore love, longing, and erotic desire between an interconnected group of creatives in the Midwest with tenderness and a gentle touch of dry humor. Adopting an unusual structure that sees every other story return to the same narrative thread—one dealing with the gripping sexual tension between three dancers—the stories interspersed between move from intimate portraits of characters reassessing their understanding of what family means, to the menace and violence of the story that gives the book its title, which offers a powerful window into the darker corners of American masculinity. Fully delivering on the promise of Real Life, Filthy Animals firmly establishes Taylor as a brilliantly inventive storyteller, and one whose beautifully drawn characters have that rare ability to really make you care. —L.H.
The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller (July)
In the middle of a summer dinner party unfolding in the backwoods of Cape Cod, Elle, the protagonist of Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Place, steps outside into the dusty shadows and consummates a long-simmering love affair. Waking up the next morning, she declares it “the end of a long story,” though it marks the beginning of this beguiling book, which unfolds amid the freshwater ponds, beach grasses, and poison ivy covering the Cape. Toggling between decades, the novel charts a wandering course among the slightly scruffy socialites who populate this gin-soaked landscape: salty women in their mumus, walking barefoot to each others’ houses; men in duck pants who treat divorce as “just a seven letter word”; kids running wild—largely ignored. Elle, an NYU instructor with a loving husband and three children, seems to have charted a more committed path for herself, but her fleeting infidelity—and the sultry memories it provokes—illustrates how even the most staid life can take an unpredictable tack. —C.S.
I Couldn’t Love You More by Esther Freud (July)
This multigenerational novel from Hideous Kinky author Esther Freud takes the reader on a wild ride from 1960s London to the horrors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries—institutions intended to house “fallen” women—to the present day. But all this wide-ranging territory is covered with grace and restraint. In I Couldn’t Love You More, family represents comfort and ease as well as yearning, curiosity, and loss; mothers and daughters alike are sure to see themselves in its pages. —E.S.
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke (July)
Rarely has nonfiction been as topical as in Kristen Radtke’s wide-ranging exploration of loneliness, a state of being that was all too familiar to many as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world and isolated millions last year. Radtke expertly traces the cultural origins of loneliness back to the invention of sitcom “canned laughter,” posing the question: what, specifically, do we lose—as individuals, and as a society—when we turn inward? —E.S.
The Turnout by Megan Abbott (August)
There’s a fairytale-like quality to Megan Abbot’s The Turnout, in which orphaned sisters Dara and Marie run the ballet school founded by their elegant mother with a dedication that makes little room for anything else. The school is an inheritance that brings with it not only the petty competitions of the students (and their parents) but also larger questions about the legacy they have inherited; it is the source of their livelihood, their passion, and much of the conflict that arises between them. That conflict takes on more ominous tones when a burly contractor arrives, ostensibly to address the damage following a mysterious fire, and swiftly works his way between the sisters by seducing Marie. Is it just love that has intoxicated Marie, or something more menacing? —C.S.
Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette (August)
In Claire Luchette’s remarkable debut, Agatha, a nun, is transplanted, along with her pious sisters, to a halfway house in the “tuckered-out town” of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where they are entrusted with the wellbeing of a lonesome cast of characters who want little to do with them. What follows is a coming-of-age story of sorts in which Agatha, attracted to the order for its promise of belonging, begins to learn that true comfort lies in greater knowledge of oneself. Written in a bracing, acerbic, and darkly comic tenor, the book is a surprisingly buoyant and fast-paced read, a modern and sly spin on the meaning of devotion. —C.S.
Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson (August)
As we reckon with a deeper collective understanding of the toll that modern life has taken on the natural world, novels that directly address climate change are feeling more painfully relevant than ever. Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring is a pitch-perfect example of the micro-genre’s best attributes; examining, along with the story of a struggling family in a Pacific Northwest mining town, the dangers of mudslides, animal extinctions, and herbicide use. The book ultimately paints an unforgettable portrait of the very real consequences that environmental decay can hold, for nature and humanity alike. —E.S.
Ghosts by Dolly Alderton (August)
The action in Ghosts, an astonishingly assured debut from the journalist Dolly Alderton, takes place after Nina George Dean turns 32. She’s a food writer with a London flat that she adores (not least because she owns it), a second book mere moments from going to press, two well-meaning parents in the suburbs, and a wide circle of close friends, including an ex with whom she’s stayed unproblematically close. When Nina meets the doting and superhero-handsome Max through a dating app—the culture surrounding which Alderton renders in all its mortifying (and hilarious) inanity—she can’t believe her luck. But her house of cards soon starts to cave in: her dad’s health takes a turn; she feels estranged from her oldest friend; the proposal for her next book isn’t really coming together; her downstairs neighbor is a nightmare; and after several blissful months, she’s getting radio silence from Max. True to its title, Ghosts teems with them—the shades of past loves and old selves, especially—besides interrogating the Internet-era phenomenon of being “ghosted,” and resorting to stalking a man’s LinkedIn profile for signs of life. Deftly observed and deeply funny, Ghosts considers where we find, and how we hold onto love with what might well be described as haunting precision. —Marley Marius
Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So (August)
Following a six-figure bidding war for his debut short story collection last year, the 28-year-old Anthony Veasna So passed away unexpectedly in December. That collection, however, more than lives up to the initial hype. A series of vignettes documenting the lives and loves of Cambodian-American families in California’s Central Valley with warmth, generosity, and irreverent humor, Afterparties showcases So’s dazzling prose, which ricochets between meditations on food and family, an eclectic array of pop culture references, and the weightier implications of the intergenerational trauma passed down by those who fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s. (The afterparties of the title are, with So’s typically dark wit, a coded reference to the bittersweet nature of passing on the traditions of the home country within the Cambodian diaspora.) So’s observations on queer life today are particularly incisive. In one instance, a charming love story blossoms between a righteous tech entrepreneur and a world-weary young teacher obsessed with Moby Dick, with the couple finding a strange poetry in the rhythms and routines of casual sex. These movingly intimate windows into the immigrant experience leave a powerful imprint, even if the experience of reading So’s work is tinged with the sadness of knowing that he clearly had so much left to say. —L.H.
Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage by Eleanor Henderson (August)
Marriage memoirs are like confessions—the more honest the better. And Eleanor Henderson’s mesmerizing chronicle of her two-decade marriage is ruthless. The love story is there: Eleanor falls hard for Aaron in a record shop in Florida in 1997. She is 17. He is a 25-year-old straight-edge dreamboat, “teeth as white as his T-shirt. Around his neck, a string of wooden Krishna beads was wound three times, tight as a choker.” She brings him to Vermont with her for college and then to graduate school in Virginia (marrying him along the way). Eleanor is a novelist, ambitious, upwardly mobile. Aaron is none of those things. He’s moody, wounded, seemingly unemployable, and given to secrets. Henderson’s headlong narrative (she writes as if she’s conducting an exorcism) pulls their dynamic into painful focus. She builds a life—a career, a house, two boys—he tears it all apart with his mood swings, his addictions, mysterious ailments: rashes, sores on his skin, aches that keep him awake all night. A medical mystery develops—does he have Morgellons disease? Schizophrenia? Some other psychiatric condition? Does alcohol help? Does marijuana? Most chillingly: does the specter of hard drugs, glimpsed but never fully seen, hang over the marriage? Leave him, the reader thinks. But life, of course, is not so simple, and rarely has codependency been chronicled with such precision, such poignancy. Everything I Have Is Yours is a kind of tragedy but it’s an astonishingly humane one too. —Taylor Antrim
Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (August)
First published in 1973, Gianfranco Calligarich’s Last Summer in the City seems to limn his own life: Like Calligarich, the novel’s protagonist, Leo Gazarra, leaves Milan for Rome and a writing job, and when that job disappears, spends his summer days at the beach and his nights drifting from party to party, woman to woman. If this sounds like a glittering, solipsistic idyll—well, sure, from the outside; but Leo’s perspective and Calligarich’s rendering turns la dolce vita into something more akin to Camus’s L’Etranger in a contemporary-ish urban setting. Out of print for years, this welcome new translation is elegiac and heart-rending. —Corey Seymour
The Shimmering State by Meredith Westgate (August)
In the upcoming novel Shimmering State, two Angelenos, Lucien and Sophie, meet in a recovery center after using and abusing an experimental memory drug called Mem. They aren’t sure how they got there—but somehow, they find themselves inexplicably, and inescapably, connected. Why? A tale that’s told in the back rooms at Chateau Marmont and behind the curtains at the Los Angeles Ballet, it explores the dark side of California dreaming—and how, more often than not, memory isn’t a lane, but a labyrinth. —Elise Taylor
In the Country of Others by Leila Slimani (August)
Leila Slimani is widely known as the author of the eerie 2016 bestseller The Perfect Nanny, but she’s written a whole new chapter for herself with In The Country of Others, the ambitious first installment in a planned trilogy. The novel revolves around a tumultuous affair between a young French woman and a Moroccan soldier who find themselves unexpectedly drawn to one another and eventually settle down to raise children. Slimani excels at telling this wide-ranging story, expertly folding themes of love, loss, alienation, gender, and belonging into a complex narrative set against the backdrop of World War II. —E.S.
A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins (August)
Paula Hawkins, the best-selling author of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water, returns to the fertile ground of twisty murder mysteries with A Slow Fire Burning. After a 23-year-old man is found dead in his houseboat in London, three deeply complicated women come into focus: There’s Laura, a misunderstood figure who was last seen with the victim; Carla, an aunt in mourning; and Miriam, a neighborhood busybody with a number of secrets of her own. Hawkins’s latest may not break the mold, but it’s a satisfying whodunit that will keep you guessing until the very end. —Jessie Heyman
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