Book clubs: Man versus forest
Grand in scale, somber in message, Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s sprawling historical novel, is an old-fashioned tale of exploration and discovery that chronicles the destruction of the world’s forests. The novel follows the fortunes of René Sel and Charles Duquet, two poor Frenchmen in 17th-century Canada who become woodcutters, or barkskins. Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman and fights to eke out a life, while Duquet goes on to start a timber enterprise. The book tracks their descendants as they struggle to survive in far-flung locales, including New Zealand and China, deforesting every region they enter and clashing with native cultures along the way. Proulx spins this epic tale all the way into the present day. Her richly developed characters, including Duquet’s great-grandson, James Duke, who continues the family timber business, and his smart, resourceful daughter, Lavinia, keep the book from being preachy or pedagogic. This is a rewarding read from a world-class writer that’s sure to get book clubs talking.
One of the biggest debuts of 2016, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s shrewdly observed novel, The Nest, is the story of the Plumb siblings and their struggles over an anticipated inheritance. Melody, Jack and Beatrice have a face-off with their brash, irresponsible brother, Leo, whose car accident (involving lots of alcohol and a teenage waitress) has imperiled their shared trust fund, which they refer to as “the nest.” Each Plumb sibling needs the money to solve a particular problem. Melody is contending with a mortgage and her daughters’ college tuition, while Jack is hoping for a bailout on funds he borrowed to keep his antique store afloat. Aspiring writer Beatrice, meanwhile, needs all the help she can get as she wrestles with her first novel. The story of how the Plumbs resolve the matter of the nest makes for a funny, poignant family saga. Sweeney writes convincingly about domestic feuds and sibling dynamics. This is a delightful debut from a writer of great promise.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Nearly two years after it was first released, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See arrives in paperback this month. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the lives of two characters during World War II in Europe. Werner is a German orphan who—thanks to his remarkable facility for math—is placed in a special Nazi school. Marie-Laure, a young blind girl, lives in Paris with her father. When the war escalates, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo, a walled city in Brittany where they have relatives involved in the French Resistance. Werner, meanwhile, rises through the ranks of Hitler Youth to become a Resistance tracker. When he arrives in Saint-Malo, he connects with Marie-Laure, and their lives change forever. Doerr’s beautifully rendered novel has all the makings of a classic. Poetic, compassionate and compelling, it’s a book that will stand the test of time.
This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.