Summer reading: Five tales of love, romance, and heartbreak

One Day by David Nicholls; The Lovers by Vendela Vida; Furious Love by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger; Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

One Day

by David Nicholls

(Vintage, $14.95)

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“Take care where you lay this book down,” said Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times. British novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls has devised a way to tell a modern love story that will be irresistible to anyone “susceptible to nostalgic reveries” about missed chances—“which is to say, all of us.” Two freshly minted university grads, Emma and Dexter, wake up together on July 15, 1988, both unready to fully embrace the chemistry that pulled them into Emma’s bed the night before. Over the next two decades, they will never lose touch, and we’re afforded opportunities to check in on them on the same date each year, wondering every time if love will win out. A reader can easily underestimate this book’s power, said Nathaniel Bellows in The Boston Globe. The story of brainy Emma and heedless Dexter at first feels fairly conventional, but Nicholls’ prose is “expertly paced, highly observed, and at times both funny and moving.” At some point, both characters become “real, living, breathing” people. In the final pages, you realize that this little novel “has taken your heart and crushed it.”

The Lovers

by Vendela Vida

(Ecco, $23.99)

The central love story in this quietly impressive novel has been mercilessly cut short by a husband’s death, said Jonathan Messinger in Time Out Chicago. Yvonne, the 53-year-old widow, has booked a vacation in Turkey to try to shake off her grief, and Vida uses the displacement of travel “to examine the psychological damage” that follows a traumatic experience. Here, she surrounds the reader “with the same dread felt by Yvonne.” Though she seeks healing along the Aegean, she also finds more heartbreak, said Claudia Dey in the Toronto Globe and Mail. In a fateful decision, she hires a local boy to take on the perilous task of gathering jewel-like seashells. The Lovers “is never without humor and intrigue,” but it’s best at capturing the true nature of tragic loss. The world doesn’t care that any one person might deserve a break. “Loss can be compounded by more loss.”

Furious Love

by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

(Harper, $27.99)

Though the title sounds “both sudsy and soporific,” this detailed account of a legendary Hollywood romance turns out to be one of the summer’s best reads, said Peter Bart in Variety. Movie legends Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor “were not only beautiful and talented” but also prone to self-indulgent excesses that helped bring down the star system that created them. Anyone who actually remembers the stars’ scandalous extramarital affair, in 1962, or their marriage two years later won’t be surprised by the boozing and brawling chronicled here, said Liz Smith in Still, the authors of Furious Love “provide real insight into what made this coupling so passionate” that it could survive two divorces and countless betrayals. “Younger people today cannot fathom, in their wildest imagination, what Elizabeth and Richard were to the world” at the dawn of the age of the paparazzi. Just spending time in their company again is like digging into “the most deluxe fudge sundae.”

Under Heaven

by Guy Gavriel Kay

(Roc, $26.95)

“Don’t worry about having to sneak into the Fantasy section” to grab this one, said John Williford in The Miami Herald. Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay may have started his career in that genre, but he’s since become “peerless” at subtly blending its more appealing elements with real history, in novels that feel like fresh dispatches from a lost past. His latest epic transports a reader to a “slightly reimagined” Tang dynasty China, where a young former soldier named Tai is forced to contend with the consequences of a lavish gift from a princess, said Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. As Tai travels the land, fending off assassins on his way to taking ownership of 250 marvelous horses, it’s the daring, driven women of Under Heaven who become the “most memorable” characters. This is a book that can make a reader believe in the power of a 21-year-old concubine to make men risk their lives for her. “Most important of all, it is the novel you’ll want for your summer vacation.”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

by David Mitchell

(Random House, $26)

This “rich historical romance” is an unusually conventional work from a novelist whose tricky, swift-moving earlier novels have been “showing us the future of fiction,” said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. The book’s protagonist, an earnest Dutch clerk sent in 1799 to a small island off the coast of Japan, confronts deep-seated local corruption while struggling with an unexpected infatuation with a Japanese midwife. Mitchell works a little too carefully to establish the ethical dilemmas that seem to interest him most. But he’s “constructed an apothecary cabinet of vibrant set pieces” that keep the pages turning until a kidnapping gives the book an Indiana Jones–like central adventure. Yet “because Mitchell’s dialogue is so brilliant” and his talents so prodigious, a reader yearns for deeper rewards, said James Wood in The New Yorker. His latest is “a formidable marvel” as an exhibition of pure storytelling skill. But Mitchell could have made it tell us more about our own lives today.

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