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
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,
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."