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Best bets for book clubs
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Cleave’s much-praised second novel has an unforgettable central character—a 16-year-old Nigerian orphan named Little Bee. After escaping from a mass slaughter in her village, Little Bee encounters a married couple on the beach, a crossing of paths that changes the lives of everyone involved. The couple, Andrew and Sarah, are journalists from England who are trying to rekindle their marriage with a holiday. What transpires between them and Little Bee on the beach is one of the novel’s many horrifying yet oddly transportive events. When Little Bee enters England covertly, she ends up in an immigration center but soon runs away, pinning her hopes on tracking down Andrew and Sarah. And find them she does, in the suburbs of London, where a new chapter in Little Bee’s life soon unfolds—one that draws upon the horrible events back home even as it offers strange possibilities for the future. Courageous, resourceful and smart, Little Bee makes for a first-class narrator. Her impressions of European culture bring humor to a novel of many moods. Cleave, who writes for the Guardian, clearly has a broad understanding of international politics and a deep sympathy for immigrants and exiles, both of which he brings to bear on this compelling narrative. His skills as a novelist have earned him comparisons to master storytellers such as Ian McEwan and John Banville, and Little Bee makes it easy to see why.
A reading group guide is included in the book and available online.
Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy
Set in the Irish village of Rossmore—a quaint hamlet threatened by progress—Binchy’s latest novel explores the tension that exists between long-standing tradition and fast-moving change. The possibility of highway construction not far from Whitethorn Woods, where Rossmore’s beloved shrine, St. Ann’s Well, is located, causes controversy among the town’s residents. Some welcome the possibilities offered by development, while others are concerned about maintaining the shrine, which is believed to be a source of divine power. Father Brian Flynn, a local curate, is not sure which side he’s on and finds himself embroiled in the town’s conflict. Meanwhile, the stories of the villagers unfold around him. In her 60s, Vera discovers love unexpectedly—on an outing for younger people. James, a flourishing antiques dealer, has a dying wife. Neddy Nolan, the community half-wit, turns out to be more complex than people thought. In the end, he may have a solution to the town’s difficulties. Life in Rossmore is filled with hope and heartbreak, and Binchy depicts it all with wonderful detail from the perspectives of a variety of fascinating characters. Skillfully connecting the townspeople’s stories into a multilayered narrative, she has created a delightful novel that her many readers are sure to love.
A reading group guide is available online.
The Believers by Zoë Heller
Set in New York City in 2002, Heller’s perceptive third novel explores the disintegration of the well-to-do Litvinoff family. Although they came of age in the 1960s, Audrey and Joel Litvinoff have traded in their happy-go-lucky liberalism for a more refined lifestyle. Joel is a reputable lawyer, and Audrey is the mother of their two now-grown daughters. The Litvinoffs also have an adopted son named Lenny, a drug addict who’s an expert at using people. When Joel has a stroke while working in court, he ends up in the hospital, and his room is where some of the novel’s central events and revelations unfold. Audrey hopes for Joel’s recovery even as she learns terrible secrets about him. Her discontented daughters are also struggling. Personally unfulfilled, Rosa surprises the family by turning to Orthodox Judaism for answers. Karla, an unhappily married social worker, finds herself drawn to an Egyptian immigrant who operates a newsstand. The Litvinoffs, as Heller portrays them, are the quasi-dysfunctional family. A very contemporary—and very human—clan, they’re fueled mostly by the wrong motivations. Heller refuses to whitewash her characters or embroider reality, and her fearlessness in this regard is part of what makes The Believers so darkly fascinating. It’s a chilling portrait of a family on the edge.