But one can find a good page-turner in the standalone novels on the fiction shelves too.
Take Claire Cameron’s freshly published The Bear, longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize and blurbed by Miriam Toews: “A hauntingly beautiful novel.”
True, Andrew Pyper calls the novel out for its suspense, but Cathy Marie Buchanan also mentions the “hopeful, sensitively told backstory”. Alissa York remarks that it is “an unforgettable hymn to the legacy of familial love” and Charlotte Rogan says it is “taut and touching”.
These observations of Claire Cameron’s novel also could apply to Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known and Carol Cassella’s Gemini.
Both Korelitz and Cassella have more in common stylistically with writers like Laura Lippman and Joy Fielding.
There is quite a bit of backstory, which is satisfying for readers of literary fiction (and which might frustrate some devoted mystery-readers).
The emphasis in You Should Have Known and Gemini is predominantly on characterization, even while the story is clearly preoccupied by a situation which the reader yearns to understand.
Readers are given ample opportunity to cozy up with main characters in their environs while the drama unfolds.
Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known features Grace, a marriage counsellor immersed in promotion for her new book, which urges women to take a hard look at their relationships before making a commitment, because often the signs of trouble are present from the start but overlooked in the flush of beginnings.
What Grace does not discuss in interviews, however, is that she too believes in love at first sight; she fell hard for Jonathan Sachs and immersed herself in building a life and a family with him. What Grace does not know is that she could have used the advice she offers her book’s readers as much as her readers could benefit from it.
“Henry [her son] must have misunderstood. She felt as if she’d been hurled up out of the taxi and didn’t know where to alight first – on her need to correct this notion as soon as possible, on her own guilt, on her sudden, overpowering resentment of Jonathan [her husband], or on the unfamiliarity of that. What had possessed him to say such a thing?”
Grace is not an immediately sympathetic character; she is frequently impatient with her clients (privately, though she seems to mask those feelings for the most part) and she speaks with an authoritative voice rooted in privilege.
And, yet, even against the backdrop of her relatively cushy life, she is aware of these edgy aspects of her personality. “Tough, bitchy, Jewish, feminist, New York women. Like us. Yes?”
You Should Have Known takes time to settle readers into Grace’s perspective so that we can understand why she, too, should have known. But did not.
The questions raised early on by a flippant comment made by her son, a seemingly innocuous detail that his father relayed, lead to another series of questions, which lead not only to Grace being hurled out of taxi but out of the world she has known.
This is not, however, an immediate realization and recovery, but a long and painful unravelling. Along the way, readers settle into scenes which seem to have little bearing on Grace’s situation.
Wives meet to make fund-raising plans for the private school their children attend, Henry goes to his violin lessons, and there is an awkward dinner with Grace’s father and his second wife.
Sometimes there are individual plot points relayed which take on a new significance as Grace gains a new understanding of her life, but sometimes these scenes simply flesh out character.
Setting also plays a vitally important role in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel; it’s impossible to imagine it taking place anywhere other than NYC.
This is true, too, of Carol Cassella’s novel, Gemini.
Not all of the story unfolds on the Pacific ocean shore or in the neighbouring forests and ravines, but the early experiences of Raney and Bo are rooted there.
Early in the novel, young Raney describes the way she would like to paint a portrait, and the sensory detail is precisely drawn.
“Someday, Raney decided, she would invent paints that came with permanent scents: greens that smelled of fish and seaweed; yellows that smelled like lightning strikes and crushed cedar and wet bark stripped from hundred-year-old firs; creams and whites that smelled like sand sifting through your fingers. By the end of that summer Bo’s portrait would have smelled like all of those.”
These are the kind of passages more often associated with literary fiction than genre writing (troublesome terms, both).
Similarly, Gemini‘s structure seesaws back and forth in time, which commercial mystery novels do often do. (Both Giles Blunt’s Into the Night and the most recent in the Nina Borg series do just that; this is one of the reasons I enjoy these writers so much.)
The novel begins with Charlotte’s voice, on an ordinary workday in present day, with the admission of a Jane Doe to the hospital. The next chapter launches Raney’s narrative.
Although the relationship between the two narrative voices is not much of a mystery, the complications surrounding the connection are not immediately apparent.
What readers might not expect is the way in which the author knits the theme into the story.
“All the years of thinking you were not thinking about how he had changed, where he was living, who he was loving; it gave your subconscious free license to build an entire parallel life of might-have beens. An imagined twin. You don’t even realize how much space you’ve given it until the invented life is blown to bits.”
(You might think you can guess, based on the passages that I’ve selected, but not only am I being tricksy but Carol Casella does not reveal key connections until later in the novel, so you needn’t be looking for Jekyll-n-Hyde-styled twins here.)
Almost immediately, readers realize that Raney’s narrative is rooted in the past, and it is unlikely that Carol Cassella intended readers to be surprised by the connection with the present-day storyline; rather, it is likely that readers are intended to take pleasure in the observations that Raney’s narration offers.
As her perspective affords some 20/20 observations, there are some terrific lines which not only support the novel’s mood but also indicate some of the author’s preoccupations thematically.
“It would be another decade before she understood that the bliss and curse of adolescence is the capacity to lie better to yourself than to anyone else, especially your own folks.”
Raney’s coming-of-age is a vitally important part of Gemini’s story, but with the advantage of her being positioned to reflect on earlier years, readers see her not only as a girl but also in a longterm relationship.
“Funny she had never realized before now – at this late age – that an argument could still connect two people after tenderness had worn itself out.”
Gemini considers the relationships between people who are not conventionally bound, You Should Have Known considers the marital relationship, and The Bear considers the relationship between siblings.
And the perspective on this sibling relationship is five-year-old Anna’s; imagine hers to be the larger silhouette on the cover, with her nearly-three-year-old brother in tow.
Imagine her to be tugging him away from the campsite ransacked by a bear in Algonquin Park; imagine these two children left to their own devices in the woods.
Imagine the irony of that mother’s statement below, a scene which unfolded when the worst problem Anna faced was how to get a cookie without her mother seeing and which is remembered when the cookies are suddenly essential sustenance not a desirable treat.
“I snuck a cookie when Momma wasn’t looking. She found the lid off when I forgot to put it back because the cookie was so good I had to eat it right away. She looked at the lid off to the side and put it back. She looked at me and smiled and said ‘ A bear must have gotten into our cookie tin.’ And I smiled too and shrugged my shoulders so she wouldn’t know. I get the lid off and whoa the smell of cookies and there are chocolate chips and I stuff one into my mouth and take another and give one to Stick. Finally he is eating a cookie and he is quiet and we are sitting in ankle water in the canoe with sopping wet bums.”
Having the novel narrated by a child creates a deliberate confusion for readers; this is sometimes a delightful puzzle, and sometimes a frustration, which both illuminates the unexpected and muddies the story.
Sometimes it is charming, and sometimes it is horrifying. And it is successful, primarily because the book is limited in length to the same degree that Anna’s comprehension is limited.
“The black dog noses around and it grabs something in its mouth and I look and I can’t tell what it is besides long. But it waves around and on the end it’s red and it might be the meat with Daddy’s sneaker. Daddy won’t like a bear chewing his sneaker.
‘Hey,’ I say.”
This is not the first time that a bear has made an appearance in Claire Cameron’s fiction; The Line Painter was a page-turner too, although because of the two-legged characters, not the bear.
“The bear was at the base of the tree, a paw on my bag, watching me climb. His eyes flickered with amused curiosity. Seeing I’d stopped, he quickly lost interest. He got a firm hold on my bag with his mouth, strolled over to a patch of sun by the lake, and sat down with a thump.”
The Bear has the patch of sun and the lake too, but a very interested bear. And even the adult narrator of The Line Painter was deeply affected by her encounter. “I was shaky and feeling weak, tired, and a bit homesick. The bear had scared me to my core.”
So it’s unsurprising that the encounter described in The Bear would have lifelong repercussions on any survivor(s). And without going into detail this is considered in the final segment of The Bear.
What touched me most as a reader was the immersive experience of reading Anna’s story in her own voice, which comprises the majority of the novel; the reflective aspects of the novel did not have the same resonance for me.
Many readers are comparing The Bear to Room, Anna’s experiences to Jack’s, and I enjoyed the “before” aspects of that story more than the “after” aspects as well; but whether “before” or “after”, Claire Cameron’s ability to tell an incredibly compelling story is impressive in both of her novels.
Character, setting and voice: these elements are more often discussed in relationship to sprawling literary novels, but these qualities stand out in all three of these recent novels: Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known, Carol Cassella’s Gemini, and Claire Cameron’s The Bear.