Hanya Yanagihara, who made a wildly creative debut with The People in the Trees, beautifully navigates several perspectives in A Little Life (Doubleday, $30), narrating the lives of four men in New York City. A tight-knit crew in college, Malcolm, JB, Jude, and Willem stick together after graduation, and the story chronicles their lives, complete with the pivotal moments and festering secrets, both shared and hidden, over decades of friendship. Yanagihara supplies little in the way of concrete physical descriptions and straightforward timelines, instead devoting many pages to expertly paced exposition that delivers powerful emotional punches. Most of these focus on Jude, who is the novel’s fulcrum; the other characters are defined by their relationship with this extraordinarily complicated figure. Yet the group itself has a complex dynamic, and the story traces stubbornness, rivalry, anxiety, and outright fear. Jude, however, has an especially traumatic story, and his emotional and physical scars affect the entire group. Even as the men grow into middle age, their relationships continue to evolve, expanding, shrinking—even spiraling out of control.
Observing that we seldom read about a successful marriage in serious literature, Lauren Groff set about changing that. Though she’s confessed she’s no expert on marriage, despite being married herself, she’s birthed a brilliant monster of a novel with Fates and Furies (Riverhead, $27.95). At once a richly layered and inventive portrayal of a relationship, in all its passions and secrets, and a deep well of a tale about loyalty and love, Groff’s third novel lets us deep inside the psyches of Lotto and Mathilde. A story told in two halves, it gives the husband’s and wife’s perspectives separately. We watch as the characters develop, following them from their childhoods to their meeting, witnessing how they stay together and how they form their own identities both within and outside their marriage. With Groff’s trademark breathtaking backdrops—this time the plot unfolds in France, Florida, and New York City—and a colorful (sometimes even grotesque) supporting cast, this amazing novelist gives us her most important work yet. It’s been shortlisted for the National Book Award for a reason—and everybody should drop what they’re doing and read it.
The narrator in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s stunning debut novel, The Sympathizer (Grove, $26) is a double agent, working both sides in the closing days of the Vietnam War. A South Vietnamese Army officer educated in the West, he’s fluent in American English and culture and serves as the perfect guide for this story, noticing the hypocrisy and absurdity of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Later, called upon to be the technical advisor on a film reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, he vainly and hilariously tries to indicate the cultural stereotypes and the dehumanizing racism to the auteur director. When a friend back in Vietnam is threatened, he returns to his country and is forced to tell his long and complicated story—to his own great peril but the delight of readers of the novel.