By way of Katya, a novelist and fortyish mother of two, Lara Vapnyar delivers “a very dark comedy,” one charting Katya’s complicated love life, her adjustment to Brooklyn after a childhood in the USSR, and her struggle to become a fiction writer. The heart of Divide Me by Zero (Tin House, $24.95) is Katya’s relationship with her “hero of heroes”—her mother. A widow and mathematician, Katya’s mother wrote textbooks for children before she immigrated, and late in life she decides to produce one for adults. But she dies of cancer before she’s done more than assemble twenty “flash cards” with theories and formulas. Katya, torn up by grief and facing the end of her marriage, uses these cards to structure the “self-help math book” that becomes the story of her own life. And she knows her life could use some structure. Married to a man she no longer loves, pining after the man she’s loved since she was seventeen, and trying to be swept off her feet by a Putinera “Russian Gatsby,” Katya feels she lives an Escher life in an Escher house: the parts look normal, but won’t work together. If her search for a rational basis for emotions doesn’t make her “immune to the craziness of love,” it introduces readers to a character as delightful and unpredictable as she is passionate and smart.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton keeps getting better and better. On the heels of her National Book Award-nominated A Kind of Freedom, she gifts us The Revisioners (Counterpoint, $25)—a stunner. This time-bending, intergenerational story of strength, love, and legacy, alternates between 2017, 1924, and 1855, telling the story—or stories—of two Louisiana women, Ava and her grandmother’s great-grandmother, Josephine. Ava, a single mother, moves into her white grandmother’s home in order to care for the aging woman. Tensions arise as her grandmother’s health and mind deteriorate. Ava’s story is mirrored by the 1924 narrative of Josephine’s uneasy friendship with a new white neighbor in a nearby property. Josephine, born a slave, escaped and eventually built a family farm with her husband. Sexton connects these two women through motherhood, their unique—some even say magical—ability to nurture life, and uncountable obstacles of racism and violence. An unputdownable read, The Revisioners will leave you gasping in the end.
The eponymous linguists of Cathleen Schine’s delightful, tender novel The Grammarians (Sarah Crichton, $27) are Laurel and Daphne, identical twins who fall in love with language early, speak to each other in their own native tongue of Blingo, and, until complications arise, play with words like toys. Almost dauntingly inseparable, the pair also struggle (or is it struggles?) with the boundaries of their individual identities. Named for the same mythic figure, as “identical twins…are they half or double?” They have a double wedding, each bears one daughter, then, even as language remains the focal point for each, their opposing views of it eventually divide them. While one becomes The People’s Pundit and writes a column on usage, the other appropriates examples of non-standard English for poems and stories. Schine uses the twins’ dispute to question the wider purposes of writing and speech, touching on attendant issues of class and gender. The real question, though, is how grammar, spelling, and punctuation combine into a story that brings out life’s deeper emotional resonances. In what at heart is a captivating novel of family, Schine writes with warmth and affection for her characters, brilliantly conveying the complicated dynamics of a group of people who don’t always understand or like each other, but who share unbreakable bonds.