by George Howland Jr.
Since life is, by and large, tragic, it helps to have happy novels stacked by your bedside. When tired of being consumed by the grim realities of existence–global warming, poverty, war–and the great sorrows of literature–Anna Karenina, Middlemarch or Invisible Man, read something buoyant. There’s nothing wrong with works of art that don’t engender a major depressive episode. Novels with blithe romances are not necessarily Harlequins; funny books can rise above the sophomoric without becoming dark comedies; and a bildungsroman need not leave everyone’s entrails on the kitchen floor. We all need a restorative now and then, and uplifting novels are less expensive than cocaine, less anxiety producing than espresso and less fattening than tiramisu.
Lodge’s greatest works are novels of ideas, flesh and bone. In this book, former Roman Catholic priest Bernard Walsh travels from the dreary English industrial heartland to Hawaii and comes to terms with family love, romantic love and the love of God. During his journey, Walsh provides a fascinating education about the revolution that occurred in 20th Century Christian theology. He explains how the simple homilies of sin, salvation, heaven and hell were replaced by Dietrich “Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity,’ [Paul] Tillich’s Christian existentialism, or various types of Liberation Theology.” While this spiritual and intellectual transformation has caused Walsh to lose his vocation, it allows him to find his new life.
When wisecracking Jill gets pregnant, her fellow graduate students and singletons–Katie, a devout Mormon, and Janey, the freethinking narrator–decide the three of them should start a communal household and raise the baby together. The combination of grad school and parenting an infant crack open the three friends’ relationships and reveals fissures of belief, faith and personality. This contemporary comedy of manners, set in Seattle, captures the time of life when people do crazy things for love and friendship, while pretending they are acting in an absolutely normal fashion.
Danny attends Yale on scholarship, works in the dining hall during term, drives his father’s lunch truck during break and struggles with friendships, love affairs and growing up. Perrotta’s story is deliciously sweet and sour. It captures the experience of being a working-class kid at an elite Ivy League university, a hardscrabble retailer selling food at construction sites and a young man besieged by lust and conscience.
A cozy English village is roiled by the world shaking controversies of race, gender and religion in this first novel from British-born, New Yorker Simonson. Retired Major Ernest Pettigrew must decide what to do when faced with the crises of his friend, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a local shopkeeper. The ensuing conflict between ethics, desire and morality threatens the characters’ passions, politics and very lives.
Michael Adams is leading a double life. His legitimate identity is that of an exhausted married man with two young children who don’t sleep. His secret life, hidden behind the facade of an all-consuming job, returns him to his youth as a slacker: sleeping, boozing and hanging with his buds. What new father hasn’t dreamed of such an escape? This novel evokes the joys and dire consequences of trying to turn fantasy into reality.
The protagonist, Cassandra, lives with her eccentric family in a ramshackle country house attached to a ruin of a 14th century castle in the English countryside. She is seventeen and a marvelous observer: she watches as her sweet, distracted father struggles with his second experimental novel of “Enigmatism”; as her lithe stepmother, formerly an artist’s model, communes naked with nature; and as her older sister falls passionately in love. In the process, Cassandra discovers who she is becoming.