Cover to Cover

By

Untold Story
Monica Ali

Scribner

What if Princess Di hadn’t been killed in that tunnel in Paris but had instead faked her death some months later to escape a life that had become unbearable? It’s an attractive premise that gives rise to some interesting issues. Can she sustain friendships or romance, for instance, while guarding her secret so closely? There’s page-turning tension here, too: Will a paparazzo (disbelief must be seriously suspended to accept the coincidence by which he finds her) ruin everything? But Ali is better than this. Perhaps in an effort to highlight how prosaic Diana and her new American life truly are, she makes her people so flat that they are merely lists of predictable characteristics (and short lists, at that) rather than characters. The exception is the princess’s private secretary, whose diary entries showcase the subtlety and strict attention to point of view that are among Ali’s great talents. Unfortunately, they constitute only a small section of the novel. The pages of this book turn sleekly enough to while away some hours, but Untold Story is so much slighter than Ali’s Booker-shortlisted Brick Lane or In the Kitchen.

News From the World
Paula Fox

Norton

Slim but complete, this collection of Fox’s short works—a few essays, a smattering of memoirs, and a clutch of short stories—might function as a sampler of this once critically lauded, then neglected, and now resurrected grande dame of American literature. Although she’s probably best known for her Newbery-beribboned children’s books—among the first to treat dark subjects such as alcoholism and slavery—her voice is strikingly mature. A writer’s job, she implies in the preface to this collection, is to take a “living interest in all living creatures,” and these pieces attest to her brilliant success at that task. Their subjects are as wide-ranging and vivid as the experiences of a very long life—abandoned children, New Orleans in the 1940s, the intersections of Taos and D. H. Lawrence, neighbors and murders in New York, censorship and the deadening of written English, to name only some. What unites all is a penetrating intelligence, a sympathetic eye, and a dedication to the truth about human nature, whether discouraging or inspiring. Fox deploys the words of other writers—Lawrence, whom she reveres; Orwell; Milton—with well-earned authority and the ease of quoting old friends, and she leaves the reader with a bolstering sense of having been enriched by a view of the world at once rigorously thoughtful and deeply felt.

Saints and Sinners
Edna O’Brien

Back Bay Books

This collection of stories could be read simply for its prose, which is rich as loam. Or for its sharp-eyed discernment of the various drives that coexist amid the welter of human behavior. Here are the heartbreaking striving and the thoughtless snubbing that characterize relations between women of different classes in a small town; the frantic desperation of a wife whose husband is straying; the loneliness of the bed-and-breakfast keeper who secretly fears that she may get attached to guests who stay more than two or three days “and ask them to stay longer, for the company.” O’Brien’s Irish upbringing was intense—her family life was defined by what she has called “money troubles, drink troubles, all sorts of troubles,” and she was strictly educated by the Sisters of Mercy. Her break with Ireland and her family was equally intense, although she remains grateful to the place: “It stirs things up in me,” she told The Guardian. She now lives in England, but O’Brien is often said to capture the sensibility of her homeland in her stories. If that’s what she’s done here, then Ireland is a piercingly beautiful combination of yearning and disappointment, violence and endurance.

The Great A&P
Marc Levinson

Hill and Wang

Until the late 1920s, the grocery business was a convoluted and balkanized tangle of processors, wholesalers, and brokers that culminated in the mom-and-pop stores that could be found on almost every corner. Such massive inefficiency meant that the industry employed an enormous number of people (one in 18 nonfarm workers), but also that grocery stores took in roughly 20 cents of every dollar Americans spent; the average urban household paid out a third of its income on food—more than it spent on housing. A&P changed all that. Its nationwide system of small “economy stores,” later “combination stores” (grocery stores with meat departments), and still later supermarkets allowed it to purchase in volume, to eliminate the middlemen (the brokers and wholesalers), and, perhaps most important, to vertically integrate the grocery business, creating its own vast manufacturing-and-distribution network. A&P had its own canneries; its bakeries made more bread than any baking company in America, save one; it imported more coffee and sold more butter and cigarettes than any other retailer in the country. It was easily the largest retailer in America, with more than twice the sales in dollars of the second-largest. Thanks to the techniques that A&P developed (including the then-revolutionary idea in the grocery business of reducing the profits per unit for the sake of making more sales), the share of income that Americans spent on food plunged—and so did the number of firms and jobs in the grocery business. Levinson, who has burrowed deep in the archives, makes this story clear and compelling—and shows why A&P was both a boon to consumers and, in the words of an FDR-era federal prosecutor, “a gigantic blood sucker.” Shades of Walmart?

State of Wonder
Ann Patchett

Harper

In this lushly imaginative page-turner, a 40-something pharmaceutical researcher turns her life inside out when she trades the safety of Minnesota for the heart of darkness. In this case, the jungle is Amazonian and Kurtz is a woman, our hero’s most revered and feared medical-school teacher. Patchett, the author of Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars, among other novels, hits all her marks here: her tone is both sincere and entertainingly wry; the exotic locale and its far-out natives, as well as the earnest scientists and their painstaking research methods, are all so well conceived and thoroughly developed, they’re palpable; the protagonist changes and grows in satisfying ways; well-earned surprises abound. And if, in the end, a reader feels more admiration for the skill with which she was led through the course than emotion for the characters, that’s a small price to pay for the great pleasure of a story told very well.

The Pumpkin Eater
Penelope Mortimer

NYRB

Written in a matter of months and first published in 1962, this novel, just reissued, is an urgent, unsentimental account of a woman’s emotional disintegration. “Mrs. Armitage” (the only name Mortimer gives her protagonist) has many children (we never get an exact count) from previous unions, and her husband is a flamboyant and successful screenwriter who pursues affairs as relentlessly as she produces babies. Mortimer based the book on her own experience, and she cuts here into the viscera of a marriage—its addictive qualities, the sense of dependence it inspires, the essential loneliness it brings to the fore. Raw emotions—confusion, dismay, despair, and love—drive the story, but Mortimer seasons these expertly with the wryness that women in the 1950s seemed to have perfected. As the author herself observed of the events she fictionalized, “My sense of the ridiculous [was] the only part of me that seemed to have survived more or less intact.”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/09/cover-to-cover/308605/