Last week we talked about nonfiction, but if that category isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Today I’ll point you towards some new fiction I think you’ll enjoy, which reaches all the way from China to England to Italy. Before I spread out the wares, however, one side comment about fiction as a holiday gift. Sometimes we hesitate to give novels for fear of gifting something the recipient won’t like. It can seem easier to present a cookbook to someone we know likes to cook. Let me encourage you to take the leap this season and take your friends and family somewhere they wouldn’t otherwise visit. Sometimes the pure escapism of an enthralling novel is just the respite from real life that people need, and the push of a gift can encourage them to take a journey they wouldn’t otherwise pursue on their own. I assure you that stretching someone’s imagination is a wonderful gift.
Now, without further ado, have a look at these new titles.
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan: Inspired by a family photograph that implied her grandmother may have been a courtesan, Amy Tan decided to revisit her favorite topics—mother/daughter relationships and the juxtaposition of Chinese and American culture—in the context of a Shanghai courtesan house at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike her other novels about Chinese women coming to America, this time the immigrant experience moves in the other direction, from San Francisco to Shanghai. The Valley of Amazement will inevitably be compared to Arthur Golden’s bestseller about Japanese courtesans, Memoirs of a Geisha, but fans of that novel shouldn’t expect an equally satisfying love story. What they will get is the similar level of detail and powerful atmosphere of a world both remote and compelling.
In Valley, a young American girl named Lulu becomes pregnant and leaves her family in San Francisco to follow her lover, a Chinese artist, back to Shanghai. When it becomes clear that his traditional family will never accept her, she is forced to make her own way in the world and goes on to open a successful house of pleasure. She raises her daughter, Violet, among the courtesans, and when Violet is a teenager, Lulu decides to return to America. A vengeful suitor tricks Lulu into leaving Violet behind and convinces her Violet is dead. Violet is sold into life as a courtesan. Doomed love affairs and the kidnapping of her own daughter, Flora, make Violet’s life story a sad repeat of her mother’s history,
There is no enlightenment in Tan’s new novel, just hard lessons and painful heartbreak. The author’s characteristic humor and and insight bring the lavish and mysterious courtesan world to life. You might not always like these characters, but you’ll become immersed in their world and feel their heartbreaks.
Stella Bain by Anita Shreve: Amidst all the fiction set during or right after World War II, here comes a book set against World War I. It’s 1916, and a nurse’s aid suffering amnesia due to shell shock is trying to carry on with her life. Her name may or may not be Stella Bain. She turns up on the London doorstep of a surgeon and his wife, August and Lily Bridge, who take her in and help her uncover a deeply repressed trauma in her past. Fans of Downton Abbey will find a similar tone within the pages of Stella Bain.
The book begins in the present tense, to help readers experience the confusion and fear that Stella feels due to her amnesia. As the past comes to light, Shreve switches to past tense. This doesn’t always work in fiction, but here it’s fine thanks to Shreve’s masterful storytelling skills. She doesn’t embellish, and her careful use of words allows genuine emotion to well up between the lines.
There’s a particular elegance in all of Anita Shreve’s novels which sets her apart from other writers. In contrast to the hidden world described in such detail in Valley of Amazement, Stella Bain is far more familiar—rife with characters that feel closer to home. I suspect book clubs will flock towards Stella Bain for its simplicity and the questions the book raises about memory, motherhood, and love.
The Supreme Macaroni Company by Adriana Trigiani: “‘All families are crazy.’ ‘Why is that?’ ‘People are involved,‘“is a classic Trigiani line that sums up what the story is all about. Heartwarming humor and the warmth of family are the author’s trademarks, and the third and final installment in Trigiani’s Valentine trilogy (Very Valentine and Brava, Valentine are the first two) is as charming and vivacious as the others. If you haven’t read the other Valentine books, or anything by Trigiani before, never fear. You can jump right in without the background, and at the end you’ll be delighted to know there are two more books filled with these lovable characters.
Valentine is a New York career woman before her time; an ambitious and creative shoe designer who excels in the family business. As the book opens, Valentine’s older lover Gianluca, an Italian leather tanner, has just proposed to her. The plot takes us through their hurried wedding and into a marital struggle everyone can relate to: how to manage career and family. Their large and boisterous Italian family only complicates things.
While The Supreme Macaroni Company is as warm and clever as the rest of the trilogy, it also takes on a more serious tone. What Valentine hasn’t realized at the beginning is that getting married means her life needs to change, and the issues she faces on the way to that realization will pull at reader’s heartstrings.
What I love most about any of Adriana Trigiani’s books is the feeling they leave you with—that you’ve received a big effusive hug from a long-lost friend. That’s a pretty great gift.