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Kim DeMarco

Noah’s Compass
Anne Tyler
Knopf

Tyler hits every note squarely in this novel about meeting life head-on. Liam Pennywell, middle-class Baltimorean, sharp of thought though mild of tongue, has been drifting along in steady retreat since he was a young man. Because this is Tyler’s world, he copes with stoic irony, rather than succumbing to despair. At 60, however, having reached a nadir—he loses his job teaching fifth-grade history at a second-rate school and moves from his substantial place to a “rinky-dink starter apartment”—he gets a do-over. The means is entirely Tyler-esque: quirky, unexpected, entertaining, and involving an eccentric but stubbornly purposeful woman. And the result, a believable mix of satisfaction and regret, of progress that doesn’t erase the setbacks that have come before, is worthy of this mistress of her craft.

Just Like Us
Helen Thorpe
Scribner

In this, her first book, Thorpe, an accomplished journalist, vividly chronicles the coming-of-age of four Mexican American teenagers in Colorado. The young women struggle to reconcile an elusive American dream with the irony of their situations—only two of them have immigration papers, an invisible distinction that sets them at odds with one another and with the nation they consider home. The author, drawn into the tumultuous world of the girls and their families, sees her relationship with her subjects complicated when an illegal immigrant murders a local police officer, ensnaring Thorpe’s husband, who is the mayor of Denver, in a political maelstrom. Thorpe’s dual vantage point affords her insight into the loyalties—familial, cultural, financial—that color American perspectives on immigration, and she presents them here with measured compassion. By casting the girls’ experiences, and her own, against the larger policy debate, Thorpe personalizes an often generalized problem, and delves into questions of opportunity and identity to examine the “intersection between the terrible mystery of our being” and the “inevitably flawed fashion” in which we govern ourselves.

A Gate at the Stairs
Lorrie Moore
Knopf

This highly praised and widely anticipated bildungsroman has an undisciplined plot—it’s set after 9/11, so why not throw in a terrorist boyfriend (people aren’t always what they seem, get it?)—contrived situations (what prospective adoptive mother would want her prospective college-girl nanny to accompany her on interviews with birth mothers?), and many brilliantly tedious pages intended to show that people are tedious when talking about racism or about their feelings when their boyfriends ditch them. Perhaps Moore means to suggest that much of life does, in fact, hover on the edge of the surreal: Who can believe the terrible things that happen? Moore deploys her justly celebrated wit relentlessly, to an effect that is sometimes exhilarating, often entertaining, and more than occasionally irritating; but the wordplay also continually reminds the reader that the world on the page is not real. Still, the sense of irredeemable loss at the end is true enough and persistent. This is not a great novel, but it has pieces of one.

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