Feature

Summer fiction: Five novels almost too good for the beach

Gone Girl; The Age of Miracles; The Red House; Mission to Paris; Beautiful Ruins

Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn (Crown, $25)
Marriage is murder in Gillian Flynn’s “brilliant, blackly comic” third novel, said Laura Miller in Salon.com. One of a handful of contemporary thriller writers who are “kicking the genre into a higher gear,” Flynn constructs her latest crime dazzler atop “a mercilessly observant portrait of contemporary romance, one that might have been written by Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides.” Amy and Nick Dunne are enduring an uncomfortable fifth anniversary when we meet them, and soon they’ll each explain, in alternating accounts, how they plummeted so quickly from a charmed New York life to a bitter marital standoff in a rented house in North Carthage, Mo. But first, patrician Amy will disappear amid signs of a struggle, and tabloid coverage will make her handsome, self-satisfied husband the prime suspect. Flynn, a former Entertainment Weekly writer, “has the enviable ability” to mix pop-culture savvy with the atmospherics and themes of classic literature, said Andrea Simakis in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Think the Brontë sisters on staff at TMZ.” She has Amy’s side of the story reach us through a diary, and that voice possibly from beyond the grave helps turn Gone Girl into “an ingenious whodunit for both the Facebook generation and old-school mystery buffs.” For every reader, “it will linger, like fingerprints on a gun.”

The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House, $26)
Here’s a second title that’s destined to become “one of this summer’s hot literary reads,” said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Karen Thompson Walker won a seven-figure advance for this debut, then earned it by turning an intriguing sci-fi concept into a “genuinely moving tale” that cleverly mixes the real and the surreal. In the near future, the rotation of the earth mysteriously begins to slow, causing days and nights to become longer, crops to fail, birds to fall from the sky, and apocalyptic worries to mount. Hollywood-ready contrivances occasionally intrude on the spell the author creates, but “what sets the story apart from more run-of-the-mill high-concept novels is Walker’s decision to recount the unfolding catastrophe from the perspective of Julia, who is on the verge of turning 12.” It’s a brilliant stroke, said Melissa Maerz in Entertainment Weekly. While the planet faces dire consequences, Julia is consumed by such questions as how to talk to her crush and when to buy her first bra. The juxtaposition of the parallel-running dramas “perfectly captures what it’s like to be a teenager: always feeling like the world is going to end, waiting for the day when life goes back to normal, until you grow up and discover that it never really does.”

The Red House
by Mark Haddon (Doubleday, $26)
Think twice before you pack Mark Haddon’s new novel for a lengthy getaway with relatives, said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. The latest from the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time just might be “too knowing about the tensions and anxieties that attend vacations with extended family.” Shortly after their mother’s death, a doctor invites his estranged sister—as well as her husband and three children—to spend a week’s vacation with his own family in a rented English farmhouse near the Welsh border. Obviously, “there’s something of a lifeboat drama about this setup: eight wary strangers thrown together with a dangerously limited supply of affection.” As each character begins unpacking emotional baggage, Haddon captures every knife twist and fresh wound by cutting constantly from one character’s perspective to another’s. While that may sound confusing, “the voices are so distinct that once you can keep up, the effect is symphonic.” By the time you finish reading, you might even consider the novel a spirit booster, said Carmela Ciuraru in USA Today. Alongside all the “arguments, deceptions, and hoarded resentments,” Haddon has included “an abundance of dark humor.” Better yet, each character ends the week bearing “a lighter load than they came with.”

Mission to Paris
by Alan Furst (Random House, $27)
Alan Furst’s 12th novel is “historical fiction in the best sense of both words,” said Jeffrey Katz in NPR.org. As 1938 Europe moves inexorably toward war, an Austrian-born Hollywood movie star arrives in Paris to shoot a film and quickly draws the attention of Nazi operatives who wish to enlist him in their efforts to manipulate the French. Though he initially resists, American spies coax him into acting as a double agent. “Furst is a master at conjuring European scenes and moods” during those fraught prewar years, said Tom Nolan in The Wall Street Journal. Smoky Paris nightclubs, art deco ocean liners, and Moroccan backstreets all come to life “in Technicolor detail.” Besides,“it’s a treat” to watch the “decent, capable” protagonist move between moviemaking and the cloak-and-dagger trade.

Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter (Harper, $26)
Jess Walter’s sixth novel possesses “pathos, piercing wit, and, most important, the soul of a literary classic,” said Steve Almond in The Boston Globe. This “audacious” work spins many stories out of the filming of Cleopatra, the 1963 epic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Scene 1 lights up the moment that Pasquale Tursi, proprietor of the Hotel Adequate View, lays eyes on Dee Moray, a Hollywood star who is unexpectedly checking in to his modest pensione. Dee turns out to be pregnant with Burton’s child and, when she departs, leaves Pasquale harboring a 50-year crush. Beautiful Ruins “might remind readers of two of the best novels to come out in recent years: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin,” said Kevin Canfield in The Kansas City Star. “Walter is that good.” As the author juggles several story lines, he builds toward an ending that’s a “12-page bolt of brilliance.” 

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