The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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New and venerable voices

The year in fiction

compiled by Elizabeth Manus

1. Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden (Alfred A. Knopf). "With a seamless authority that's astounding in a first novel," Golden weaves the fictional memoirs of the geisha Sayuri, who was born Chiyo in a small fishing village. Her story spans the first half of the 20th century, and takes readers from Japan to New York as it reveals the geisha's highly ritualized world of tea ceremony and ornamentation and virginity auctions. "Deeply insightful," the book is "an intoxicating and illuminating debut," wrote reviewer Kate Tuttle.

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2. Underworld, by Don DeLillo (Scribner). A densely layered exploration of American innocence and despair, DeLillo's newest novel opens with New York Giant Bobby Thomson's legendary playoff home run off the Brooklyn Dodgers' Ralph Branca in 1951, offsetting the scene with the Soviet Union's testing of its second atomic bomb. Eschewing chronological narrative, shifting among time periods and consciousnesses, Underworld probes the enigmas of waste, history, and individual experience to yield, opined Peter Keough, "what might be the finest American novel of the decade."

3. The Falling Boy, by David Long (Scribner). Long's debut work is not your garden-variety domestic novel. Young Mark Singer is a carpenter in 1950s Montana who marries into the four-daughtered Greek-American Stavros family. He weds Olivia but ends up in the arms of the oldest daughter. "This quiet, diamond-cut book gathers force with an accumulation of tiny, perfectly realized scenes," wrote Michael Lowenthal. "Sentence for sentence, it's perhaps the best-written novel of the year."

4. Plays Well with Others, by Allan Gurganus (Alfred A. Knopf). Gurganus's second novel chronicles the friendship and careers of aspiring writer Hartley Mims Jr., composer Robert Gustafson, and painter Angie Byrnes in decadent 1980s Manhattan. Their promising beginnings in a world of "before," as in pre-AIDS, suddenly turn dark in the realm of "after." David Kurnick explained that "despite their strivings . . . the group's greatest masterpiece will be the `nursing, cheering, burying of our own.' . . . The narrative perfectly fits the strengths of Gurganus's style, which first beguiles us and then puts us through the emotional wringer."

5. All Around Atlantis, by Deborah Eisenberg (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Each of the seven tales in Eisenberg's third collection of stories "involves the invigoration of an unlived life via the shock therapy of the present," wrote Matthew DeBord. "Eisenberg's Atlantians all suffer from challenged recollection." Among the characters is a recovering junkie, a young prep-school girl, and a failed concert pianist. "With this exquisite collection, Eisenberg has contrived a thrilling, purifying tour of the fugitive soul."

6. The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick (Alfred A. Knopf). A novel divided into five short fictions, Ozick's newest work illuminates the life of Ruth Puttermesser, ardent lover of law, consummate student, romantic idealist -- in other words, Ozick's alter ego. Part fable, part fictional biography, the book depicts our polymathic lawyer's conversations with the dead, her stint as mayor of New York, and her re-creation of George Eliot's romantic tragedies. Elizabeth Manus concluded that Ozick renders Puttermesser's life with "humor, tenderness, intelligence, and beauty."

7. Traces: Stories, by Ida Fink (Metropolitan Books). Fink's third work of fiction to draw on her childhood as a Jew in wartime Poland, Traces, with its very short stories, keeps words to the "barest hush," Adam Kirsch wrote. "If the Holocaust is to be made into art, Fink believes, at least it must not serve as a pretext for virtuosity." Many of the stories deal with "survivors searching fruitlessly for relatives, or stumbling across artifacts from the past, or trying to replace the relationships they lost." With "understated, expert control," Fink snatches art from the jaws of obscenity to give readers a shocking, overwhelming experience.

8. Love Warps the Mind a Little, by John Dufresne (W.W. Norton). Dufresne's second novel tells the tale of unsuccessful writer Lafayette (Laf) Proulx; Judi Dubey, the new-agey mistress he moves in with; and Martha, his devoutly Catholic wife. Things get bleak when Judi gets cancer, but Dufresne's "eye for the absurd details of modern life, and his tireless curiosity about the workings of relationships, makes for an irresistible combination of comedy, philosophy, and catastrophe," Chris Wright wrote.

9. The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy (Random House). In her Booker Prize-winning debut novel, Roy presents a sprawling multigenerational story that weaves together political and personal history to distinctly (Salman) Rushdiean effect. Set mostly in 1969, the novel unspools a mystery surrounding the twins Rahel and Estha and their mother Ammu. Spanning three continents and four decades, the book nonetheless concentrates on the intimate and the concrete rather than the grander themes of history, tradition, and power. "As a storyteller," explained Akash Kapur, "Roy is never afraid to submit to the small things. In this commitment to the personal lies the success of her novel."

10. Love Invents Us, by Amy Bloom (Random House). Bloom's first novel, which chronicles the role of love and alienation in the lifetime of one Elizabeth Taube, may well give readers a greater understanding of "love's power to cross boundaries," wrote Michael Lowenthal. "Bloom's characters find love in all the wrong places, and they risk everything for it. . . . In spare, precise prose, Bloom conveys the taut urgency of desire with such force that only the most hardhearted of readers would dare deny it."