“Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in ChemistryLessons in Chemistry is the debut novel from Bonnie Garmus, and one of 2022’s hottest titles—it was ultimately purchased by Doubleday after an auction which garnered bids from 16 different publishers, and Brie “Captain Marvel” Larson is starring in a TV adaptation for Apple’s streaming service. It’s the current #1 bestselling hardcover novel in the Bay Area. So I went into it with high hopes.

Initially, I found a bit over-the-top in its whimsicality. Most of the book is from main character Elizabeth Zott’s point of view, but occasionally, we’re in the head of her dog, Six-Thirty (named for the hour the then-stray entered her home for the first time). And Elizabeth’s daughter is one of those hyper-precocious, wise-beyond-her-years tots who reads Faulkner and Nabokov for fun while the other first graders are still working on their ABC’s. But by the time I had finished this nearly-400-page book, it had thoroughly won me over.

From the start, I appreciated the fact that Elizabeth is an angry character. She had the misfortune to be a woman in STEM at a time when a female scientist was, at best, an object of curiosity. All Elizabeth wants to do is be a chemist. Her educational career was cut short when her academic advisor tried to rape her—she managed to stab him with a sharpened pencil, but that act of self-defense was enough to get her kicked out of the program. Now employed at a research institute, she finds herself constantly belittled by men, who are happy to steal the credit for her work but refuse to fully accept her as a colleague.

Through a series of circumstances, Elizabeth winds up pregnant and unmarried, which is enough to get her axed from her job. She loves her child Madeline fiercely, but with no way to support her, things are looking dark, until she winds up being discovered by the father of one of her daughter’s classmates, who works in local TV. He wants to make the beautiful and charismatic chemist the host of an afternoon cooking show geared toward housewives. She reluctantly takes the job, but refuses to dumb it down, urging women to “take risks” and reminding them that “fearlessness in the kitchen translates to fearlessness in life.” And since cooking is chemistry, why not refer to salt as sodium chloride and mention the health benefits of gamma-tocopherol in walnuts?

Elizabeth’s no-nonsense approach and refusal to talk down to her audience makes her a star, but she still isn’t happy. She wants to be a scientist, not a TV personality. But no one will give her a shot. “She only seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.”

If Elizabeth hadn’t been so angry, the book would have been terminally twee; if her anger hadn’t been leavened by wry humor, it would have been too much of a downer. Instead, it manages to strike just the right note at every turn.

Lessons in Chemistry is set many decades in the past, but women are still dealing with these issues today—perhaps that’s why it’s resonated so strongly with modern audiences of all ages. This is a funny, quirky and, yes, whimsical novel, but Garmus draws you into Elizabeth’s world, until you find yourself tearing up over her setbacks, cheering her on, and hoping she will triumph at last.

“The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow and “This Time Tomorrow” by Emma Straub

The Ten Thousand Doors of JanuaryI fully admit that I picked up The Ten Thousand Doors of January only because it had such a strikingly beautiful cover. (You can see a larger version here.) It was nominated for a slew of awards, including the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. I don’t think of myself as a reader of fantasy, but why not try a new genre?

When we meet January Scaller, it is 1901, and she is a young girl growing up in a Vermont mansion owned by mega-rich businessman William Locke. January is sort of his ward; her mother is dead and her father works for Mr. Locke, spending the vast majority of his time traversing the globe in search of valuable objects for his boss’s ever-expanding collection of antiquities. The distinctive copper color of January’s skin makes her what Mr. Locke calls a “unique specimen,” a bit too close for comfort to the way he might describe one of his ancient limestone figurines.

While accompanying Mr. Locke on a business trip to Kentucky, January goes exploring, and finds an old timber frame, a “raggedy blue door standing so lonesome” in an overgrown field. Stepping through the door, at first, nothing happens; then suddenly, she is in another world, viewing an idyllic panorama of whitewashed buildings by the sea. Mr. Locke goes searching for her and calls her back, but not before she’s picked up a silver coin she finds on the ground. Once she’s back in Kentucky, the presence of the odd coin assures her that she wasn’t just imagining things.

As January grows up, she yearns to learn more about these hidden doors, something Mr. Locke ardently tries to prevent, using methods that are increasingly punitive. A mysterious book she discovers in Locke’s home, which includes more information about the existence of such doors, convinces her to continue her search.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January reminded me a bit of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which held the tantalizing promise of being able to visit another world if you were lucky enough to discover a portal. With everything going on in this world right now, it’s not too surprising that this fantasy keeps popping up. The basic elements—a plucky young girl, otherworldly travel, cruel villains—are not new, but Alix E. Harrow is a gifted writer who brings them together in a satisfying way.

This Time TomorrowThe next book to come in from my list of library holds was Emma Straub’s This Time Tomorrow. Straub is a well-known, well-regarded author of  literary fiction, but TTT turned out to have a surprising number of things in common with January (as well as with Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library). Instead of a young girl slipping in and out of doors between worlds, TTT gives us a woman on the eve of her 40th birthday who discovers she is able to travel through time. Both protagonists had absent mothers and complex relationships with their fathers.

In some respects, it seems like Alice Stern is stuck in time—she works in admissions at the same tony New York private school she once attended, and is still best friends with her closest childhood pal. Her beloved father, author of a hit novel about time travel called Time Brothers, is in the hospital, close to death and unable to speak or communicate.

After consuming a few too many celebratory alcoholic beverages, Alice wakes up on her Sweet Sixteenth, her dad a healthy middle-aged man once more. She’s not sure what happened, but with the benefit of hindsight, she attempts to make a few deliberate changes. (If she is able to convince her dad to stop smoking and eat more vegetables, will he be alive and well on her 40th?) Along the way, she savors being able to re-experience 1990s New York: “Every block they walked had something that Alice had loved and forgotten: the spandex party dresses at Fowad and Mandee, the brightly lit challah bread at Hot & Crusty, the bohemian rich lady shop Liberty House… New York City did this over and over again, of course, a snake shedding its skin in bits and pieces, so slowly that by the time the snake was brand new, no one would notice.”

This Time Tomorrow is almost unbearably poignant, as Alice relives her teenage past through 40-year-old eyes. Readers who are Alice’s age or older will find so much to relate to. “The first twenty years of her life had gone by in slow motion—the endless summers, the space from birthday to birthday almost immeasurable—but the second twenty years had gone by in a flash. Days could still be slow, of course, but weeks and months and sometimes even years zipped along, like a rope slipping through your hands.”

I learned after I finished the novel that Emma is the daughter of Peter Straub, best known for his collaborations with Stephen King (The Talisman) and numerous works of supernatural and horror fiction. This Time Tomorrow does flirt with genre tropes, but the humanity of her characters keeps it grounded.

“French Braid” by Anne Tyler

French BraidOne of the main characters in Anne Tyler’s French Braid is an artist whose paintings feature blurred backgrounds with one carefully-chosen detail rendered in sharp focus: a child’s stuffed toy, a braided rug, a framed photograph. “Have you ever tried painting the whole scene in detail instead of just one part?” asks one of her prospective clients.

“Well, of course!” she responds. “Anyone can do that. But I am aiming for something a little more meaningful. I want to zero in on the single feature that reveals a house’s soul.”

Tyler herself closely examines one Baltimore family in her new novel, which travels in time from the 1950s to the present moment, but except for the pandemic (which makes an appearance in the final chapter), whatever else is going on in the world is something of a blur. Instead, we meet the Garretts—father Robin, mother Mercy (the painter), and their three children, Alice, Lily and David—as they embark upon a vacation to western Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake. This excursion offers readers a glimpse of what the trio will be like as they grow into adulthood: seven-year-old David can already sense that he and his father, owner of a plumbing supply store, will never be close; impulsive Lily, 15, strikes up a summer romance with an older boy; responsible Alice, 17, winds up making the family’s dinners when her mother runs off to paint.

The Garretts are captured in detail (“as sharply defined as they were sitting under a magnifying glass,” as Alice muses while looking at one of her mother’s paintings), and this makes their flaws stand out. It’s clear that Mercy, for instance, should never have married and had children— she grew up in a time when there were few other options for women, but her only interest in life is her art. David moves to Pennsylvania and has little to do with the rest of the Garretts; indeed, when Lily’s daughter Serena spots David’s son Nicholas in a train station, she thinks he looks familiar but is too unsure to go up and say hello, in case it’s not her first cousin after all.

I thought the book sagged a bit in the middle as the Garrett children pair off and have kids of their own, but the last chapter, with 68-year-old David spending time with Nicholas and grandson Benny (whose doctor mother is on the front lines of the COVID crisis in New York) during the summer of 2020, is bittersweet and wistful, providing the perfect ending to this saga. A family which probably would have remained distant, both physically and emotionally, had it not been for the pandemic is brought together for a few magical months, enjoying simple pleasures like playing in a wading pool and baking cookies. Leave it to Anne Tyler to find the bright side of that terrible year.

As Nicholas and Benny prepare to head back home, David reflects on his memories of that long-ago trip to Deep Creek Lake, and it’s apparent that Benny will have his own recollections of his summer with his grandparents to look back upon when he is much older. Recalling his daughter Emily’s French braid, David says, “when she undid them, her hair would still be in ripples… that’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

“The Last Chance Library” by Freya Sampson and “For Butter or Worse” by Erin La Rosa

The Last Chance LibraryThe Last Chance Library is a novel about two things that loom large in my own life: libraries and anxiety. June Jones is a library assistant in the small British town of Chalcot. She suffers from social anxiety and keeps to herself during the hours she’s not at work, but while she’s at the library, she prides herself on helping her patrons find the perfect book, use the computer, or finish their homework.

June lives alone in the house which used to belong to her mother, who died a few years ago. She’s kept the home exactly as it was when her mum was alive—and since her mother used to work at the library, she’s essentially doing her old job as well. It’s not a terribly exciting life, but it’s comfortable, and while she may not have many friends, she does have lots and lots of books.

When austerity cuts threaten to close Chalcot’s library, several of the patrons immediately rally to try to save the beloved institution, but June’s boss warns her that getting involved could result in trouble with the town council. After a lifetime of being meek and mild, June needs to find her voice and fight for what she believes in.

Much like Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting, The Last Chance Library is about the importance of community and learning to stand up for yourself. It’s very satisfying to read about the clever ways June manages to evade the ban on publicly supporting the library, and how she finally finds the courage to speak up.

For Butter or WorseFor Butter or Worse is yet another romance set in the world of competitive cooking TV shows (see also: Sadie on a Plate, Battle Royal, Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake and many more). Butter begins at the very end of the season of the “Top Chef”-like “The Next Cooking Champ,” as judge Nina Lyon dramatically quits the show during the live finale after enduring one too many barbs from her co-host, Leo O’Donnell.

Nina is the Simon Cowell “mean judge” on the show and Leo referred to her as “Nasty Nina,” a nickname that’s caused her no end of grief on social media. She decides to shift her focus to her fine-dining L.A. restaurant, which is losing money. Meanwhile, Leo—who is not a chef, but runs his family business, a chain of Italian restaurants which bear some resemblance to Olive Garden—is dealing with financial problems as well. Somehow, this leads to the two sworn enemies having to fake-date in order to save their respective eateries.

Just as an ordinary chocolate chip cookie recipe can be jazzed up with the addition of, say, pecans or sea salt, Erin La Rosa takes fairly standard ingredients (enemies to lovers, fake dating) and elevates them through some smart choices. There inevitably must be a Big Misunderstanding in books like these to jeopardize our protagonists’ budding relationship, and here it’s brought on by Leo’s anxiety disorder and panic attacks (yep, anxiety rears its head again!), which he’s always felt unable to disclose, even to his closest friends and family members. There’s some thoughtful commentary about the unfair treatment of women on social media, and a handful of appealing side characters, including Nina’s best friend, Jasmine, who also works at her restaurant. Mix it together and you wind up with a tasty foodie romance.

Thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy, via NetGalley! For Butter or Worse will be published on July 26.

“Murder in an English Village” by Jessica Ellicott

Murder in an English VillageMurder in an English Village is an extremely generic title. It’s right up there with the psychological thriller The Missing Wife and romance novel Meet Cute.

Indeed, this mystery, first in a series, is not groundbreaking, but I did find it to be entertaining, thanks to its pair of mismatched sleuths. Edwina Davenport is a spinster (no age given, but considering the time period, unmarried women were usually considered washed up by the time they hit 25) living in the English village of Walmsley Parva. Her parents are both dead and her only brother was killed in World War I, leaving her alone in a large home with no way to pay her bills. As a last resort, Edwina puts an ad in the newspaper seeking a lodger.

Fortunately, an old boarding school chum, brash American Beryl Halliwell, happens to spot the ad and figures a respite in a quiet village is just what she needs. Beryl is a world traveler who has left behind a string of ex-husbands; she loves a spot of adventure, so when she takes up residence with Edwina, she mentions to the town’s biggest gossip that she and her friend are spies working for the Crown. (In Beryl’s defense, she knows Edwina is self-conscious about her dire financial straits, and doesn’t want people to think she actually needed to take in a boarder.) Hunting around for something to investigate, Edwina mentions a young woman who went missing during the war, a Land Army girl who had a reputation as being reliable and hard-working. At the time, Edwina had wanted the local constable (a woman, who has managed to hang onto her post even now that the war is over) to look into the disappearance, but was rebuffed.

When Edwina is attacked by an unseen assailant, it appears that someone in town would prefer that the two amateur sleuths leave well enough alone. The discovery of a corpse, one the constable insists died by accident, gives them an added incentive to step up their investigation.

This book reminded me a little of Allison Montclair’s series, which also features two very different women joining forces; while Montclair’s is set in the post-World War II era, Jessica Ellicott’s takes place in the aftermath of World War I, when disfigured veterans covered their facial wounds with tin masks and many others mourned the loss of men who would never be returning home. The general lightheartedness of the contrast between prim and proper Edwina and mouthy Beryl is set against a backdrop of tragedy, but the overall mystery itself is cozy without being cloying.

“Flying Solo” by Linda Holmes

Flying SoloI’ve already read over 50 books this year, so for me to say that Flying Solo is my favorite book of 2022 so far is a big deal. Linda Holmes’ first novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over, was good, but Flying Solo really wowed me.

Laurie Sassalyn comes from a big family—she has four brothers—but when her great-aunt Dot passes away, she’s the one stuck with the job of clearing out the 93-year-old’s Maine home. A freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, Laurie grew up in Calcasset, Maine, but is very happy to have moved on, despite the fact that her best friend, June, still lives there. Laurie starts sorting through decades of Dot’s accumulated possessions, and is intrigued by one find in particular: a painted wooden duck, tucked away at the very bottom of a chest filled with blankets.

The duck becomes the MacGuffin of the plot as Laurie tries to figure out how Dot acquired it in the first place, whether or not it’s valuable, and why it had been hidden in that chest. Several people come together to help her, including June and Nick, Laurie’s old high school boyfriend. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot—don’t read the flap copy before reading the book!—because there are so many delightful surprises in store.

Laurie had recently canceled her wedding when she decided she didn’t want to get married, and adventurous Dot, who traveled the world and made all sorts of interesting friends, serves as a role model of sorts as Laurie tries to figure out what she wants the rest of her own life to look like. (She’s about to turn 40.) She is very clear about what she doesn’t want—marriage, kids, moving back to Maine—but what does she want? That turns out to be a much more complicated question.

With a touch of romance, a dollop of intrigue, and a whole lot of heart, Flying Solo is like a warm hug in book form.

“What Happened to the Bennetts” by Lisa Scottoline

What Happened to the BennettsWhen I opened What Happened to the Bennetts, I was a bit surprised to find a list of over 30 titles in the “Also By” section. As far as I know, I’ve never read anything by Lisa Scottoline before, but I found her website and she’s got some absolutely adorable dogs. Go take a look!

While this may have been my first Scottoline, I’ve certainly read plenty of books like this one—Brad Parks and Harlan Coben, among others, have already written plenty of thrillers in the Ordinary Dad Fights To Save His Family genre. The guy here is Jason Bennett, a mild-mannered court reporter whose life is turned upside down when he is driving one night with his two kids and his wife, and they are run off the road by a pair of carjackers. Jason’s daughter Allison is tragically killed by one of the criminals, and then something truly odd happens: one of the carjackers shoots his partner in crime.

It turns out that witnessing this murder has put the surviving Bennetts at risk, and the FBI whisks them away to a safe house. In these strange surroundings, they must start to come to terms with their enormous grief, and are subject to indignities like not being able to attend their own daughter’s funeral. Since their abrupt and unexplained disappearance, rumors start to fly in the Bennetts’ hometown; a true crime podcaster starts an amateur investigation and leaps to the conclusion that Jason must have killed his family and gone on the lam.

When Jason listens to one of the podcaster’s interviews and uncovers a shocking secret, he realizes that he can’t rely on law enforcement and will have to get justice on his own. “I was unarmed, with no way to protect myself. I was just a suburban dad who believed in the truth,” states Jason. “I was about to see if that mattered anymore.”

Can a grieving dad take on heavily-armed, mobbed-up drug traffickers and win? In real life, almost certainly not, but Scottoline keeps ratcheting up the tension and throws in enough twists to keep readers guessing. However, the fact that the book is about the premature death of a much-loved child and the raw emotions which follow make it feel a bit heavier than the average page-turner.

“Book Lovers” by Emily Henry and “The Guncle” by Steven Rowley

Book LoversMany of today’s most popular romance authors specialize in romcoms, with laugh-out-loud dialogue and meet-cutes that leave readers feeling warm and fuzzy. Emily Henry, on the other hand, is the reigning queen of the romantic melodrama; her first two books, Beach Read and People You Meet On Vacation, both dealt with some pretty heavy subjects and big feelings. (Part of the happily ever after in People You Meet involved both main characters going to therapy.)

In an interview about her latest novel, Book Lovers, Henry said her goal was to write “the ultimate comfort read” with a “comfy cozy throwback rom-com feeling.” In fact, the heroine, Nora, was named after Sleepless In Seattle director Ephron.

New York literary agent Nora and her sister, Libby, have always been close; their mother, a single parent, died when Libby was just 16 and Nora a bit older. Libby is now pregnant with her third child and she decides that the two of them need a sisterly getaway before the birth. She chooses the small town of Sunshine Falls, NC, just outside of Asheville—a seemingly odd and random choice, explained away by the fact that it’s the setting for Once in a Lifetime, a Where the Crawdads Sing-level blockbuster of a novel penned by Nora’s top client. Libby is a huge fan of the book, and after a lifetime in New York, she wants to experience rural living.

Libby is so determined to make the most of their trip and ensure that workaholic Nora relaxes and has a good time that she comes up with a long list of must-dos, seemingly inspired by Hallmark Channel movies: save a local business, go skinny-dipping, wear flannel, etc. She also insists that her sister go on a date. Who should turn up but Charlie, an editor whom Libby once had an unpleasant run-in with back in New York? He’s actually from Sunshine Falls, and has returned home temporarily to help take care of his father after a stroke.

Charlie’s mom owns the local bookstore, which has the only decent wi-fi in town, so Nora finds herself spending a lot of time there. It turns out Charlie will be editing her client’s new novel, so they strike up a collaboration of sorts—as well as an attraction. But Nora and Charlie are both burdened with baggage from their thorny pasts, revelations which Henry doles out sparingly throughout the book. Meanwhile, Nora begins to suspect that there’s something going on with Libby, but her sister seems strangely unwilling to ‘fess up.

Henry has some fun with tropes (Nora sees herself as the “ice-queen girlfriend” who is inevitably left behind in Hallmark romances when the boyfriend visits a small town and meets the perfect baker/seamstress/owner of a Christmas tree farm), and fans of Beach Read will appreciate the little callback to that book. There is humor here—Nora and Charlie’s banter is first-rate, but you get the sense that it’s just a defense mechanism to protect their fragile hearts.

“This book has crushed me with its weight and dazzled me with its tiny bright spots,” Nora concludes after finishing her client’s latest book. “Some books you don’t read so much as live, and finishing one of those always makes me think of ascending from a scuba dive. Like if I surface too fast I might get the bends.” Book Lovers crushed and dazzled me, in the best possible way.

The GuncleDespite its cute and colorful cover, The Guncle is also a book about dealing with grief and difficult family relationships. “Guncle” is slang for “gay uncle,” in this case Patrick O’Hara, a former sitcom star who left show business after his hit sitcom ended; he has been hiding away in Palm Springs for the past four years. The love of his life died in a car accident, and Patrick has reacted to that loss by disengaging from the world.

When his sister-in-law dies of cancer and his brother needs to go to rehab to deal with his addiction to pills—yes, there’s a lot of tragedy to go around here—Patrick winds up hosting his young niece and nephew, Maisie and Grant, for the summer while their dad recovers. At first, Patrick is convinced he won’t be able to deal with taking care of the kids, and he has no idea how to communicate with them (quoting “Grey Gardens” and Oscar Wilde to a six-year-old just causes confusion). As the season progresses, however, Patrick finds himself bonding with his two young charges.

Maisie and Grant are realistic young characters (they don’t care that Patrick used to be on TV; they’re only interested in watching YouTube), and their relationship with Patrick develops organically and believably. The Guncle is a big-hearted novel, a well-executed combination of bitter and sweet.

“Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting” by Clare Pooley and “The Summer Place” by Jennifer Weiner

Iona Iverson's Rules for CommutingAuthor Linda Holmes recommended Clare Pooley’s Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting on her Twitter feed a couple of weeks ago, and I’m so glad she did, because this book is an absolute delight.

Iona Iverson (accompanied by her French bulldog Lulu) takes the train from her suburban home to her job in London every weekday. On public transit, everyone knows the rule: “you may nod to someone if you’ve seen them on a significant number of occasions, even—in extremis—exchange a wry smile or an eye roll at one of the guard’s announcements over the loudspeaker, but you never, ever talk. Unless you were a nutter.”

One fateful morning, however, one of Iona’s fellow passengers begins choking on a grape from a fruit salad. A nurse comes to the rescue, giving him the Heimlich maneuver and saving his life. A few days later, Iona strikes up a conversation with Sanjay, the nurse, and finds out that he has a crush on another regular on the train. Iona, who writes an advice column for a magazine, is sure that she can “engineer” a connection between the two of them.

Gradually, Iona, Sanjay, Piers (the businessman who choked on the grape), Martha (a high school student) and Ellie (Sanjay’s crush) become friends, sitting together and conversing on the train each day. While things may seem fine on the surface, each of them is grappling with significant personal issues, which the reader learns about in chapters told from each character’s point of view. The one thing Sanjay, Piers, Martha and Ellie are convinced of, though, is that smart, flamboyant, witty Iona can help them solve their problems—but it turns out that she is hiding a couple of secrets as well. When Iona suddenly disappears, the others resolve to band together to find her and see if they can help her for a change.

Iona, who is 57 and fabulous, is a gem of a protagonist, a larger-than-life character who will make you wish you could sit next to her on the train. Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting is a joy from start to finish.

The Summer PlaceJennifer Weiner is back with the final novel in her “Summer” trilogy, The Summer Place (the follow-up to 2020’s Big Summer and 2021’s That Summer). Besides the titular season, the books all share a setting, Cape Cod, but are otherwise unrelated, although a character from That Summer does make a cameo appearance in the new book.

The Summer Place is centered around the Weinberg family: widowed matriarch Veronica, her twins Sarah and Sam, and their children, stepchildren and partners. Veronica lives in a beautiful home in Cape Cod, the dream house she purchased after publishing a successful novel back in the 80s. With her husband gone and the twins preferring to spend the summers elsewhere, she decides it’s time to put the house on the market—but first, she wants to host one big, final family event.

When Sarah’s stepdaughter Ruby announces her engagement, and tells Veronica that she wants to have the wedding on the Cape, everybody starts making plans. In this case, however, the Weinberg clan isn’t just working out the logistics of traveling to Massachusetts; they’re also hiding secrets, which several of them plan to spill after the big event. (Veronica, for instance, is waiting to tell the family that she’s going to sell the house.)

A couple of those secrets are reliant on coincidences which are so mind-boggling that it interfered with my enjoyment of the book. I don’t want to get into any spoilers, but I was rolling my eyes hard at some of the plot contrivances. Weiner’s novels are always fast-paced and fun, but this is probably my least favorite of the “Summer” trio.

“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusI found a copy of The Night Circus in a Little Free Library, and the evocative title intrigued me. Set at the turn of the 20th century, the novel takes us behind the scenes of Le Cirque des Rêves, “The Circus of Dreams,” which opens at nightfall and closes at dawn.

When the circus is searching for its first set of performers, a young woman named Celia auditions for the job of illusionist. Her jacket, which she flings off the stage, turns into a raven; a borrowed notebook transforms into a white dove. When the costumer mentions that Celia’s hair is too light, she changes the hue to a glossy black with a shake of her head.

Celia, it turns out, is actually capable of magic. So is Marco, who is not a performer but works for the theatrical producer who runs the circus. Gradually, it emerges that Celia and Marco are simply pawns in a larger game: a competition between two powerful rival illusionists where there can be only one winner. The circus itself appears to be the chessboard. However, they do not wish to be rivals; they want to be together, as lovers.

It takes a long time for Celia and Marco to catch on to exactly what’s happening—the book opens in 1873 and ends in 1903. The Night Circus is over 500 pages long, with plenty of side characters (including Bailey, a young New Englander whose fate seems tied up in the circus) and lots and lots and lots of description. In a chapter about the circus’s anniversary party, for instance, we learn about the decor, what everyone’s wearing and what the food is like (“Dessert consists mainly of a gargantuan tiered cake shaped to resemble circus tents and frosted in stripes, the filling within a bright shock of raspberry cream. There are also miniature chocolate leopards, and strawberries coated in looping patterns of dark and white chocolate”), before finally getting to a crucial encounter between our two protagonists.

The novel moves at a languid pace, and the numerous time jumps (a chapter set in 1901 is followed by one in 1902, and then the next chapter takes us back to 1901) can be confusing. The Night Circus has apparently been a huge hit on BookTok, most likely because the idea of running away to join a magic circus is an appealing fantasy, and Erin Morgenstern’s prose is so full of details that it’s easy to picture the scenes in your mind. I wasn’t swept away, and yet I did finish it (I’ve started taking a 20-minute break each morning to sit outside and read and drink tea; honestly, it’s best not to read something that’s too much of a page-turner, or I’d never get back to work). Ultimately, I felt like it could have been tightened up considerably to focus more on the plot and less on rhapsodizing over the clothes, food and individual circus acts, but for a lot of readers it’s probably a boon to be able to spend more time in this enchanted world.