The nine stories of Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language (Pantheon, $24.95) feature characters in foreign lands during transitional times in their lives. In one, a middle-aged married couple on holiday in India makes spontaneous decisions that affect the rest of their lives. In another a recently divorced woman has just purchased a house in a small Italian village; hoping for serenity, she is instead confronted by her fractured familial relationships, an eccentric villager with a remarkable talent, and a movie star who just won’t go away. The collection perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet, lonely feeling of traveling or living abroad. Marciano is a natural storyteller, and reading her work is like listening to a friend talk about people she knows. As well as being conversational, Marciano’s language has an almost cinematic quality—I was utterly engrossed in each scene as it played out before me. Whether you’re going on vacation or just dreaming about one, I can’t imagine a more atmospheric book to accompany and inspire you. I simply love this book.
A writer as prolific as Edna O’Brien—author of novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, and biographies --whose first book appeared in 1960,when she was thirty, and her latest just last year, would seem to have little time for anything else. But this Country Girl (Back Bay, $16) has traveled widely and hobnobbed with the best and the brightest. Her memoir moves at a steady clip from her upbringing in an archetypal Irish town, complete with a hard-drinking father, a stern mother, sterner priests, and a local Mad Mable, and on to her “gallivanting years,” which included eloping at age seventeen. Two sons and a string of literary successes followed, along with a short-lived marriage to a man who listened in on her phone calls and demanded she sign her earnings over to him. All this makes for great stories, and they’re told by a master; it also leads O’Brien to reflect on “the mystery about writing: it comes out of the afflictions, out of the gouged times, when the heart is cut open.”
Whether considered an episodic narrative or a series of linked stories, Simon Van Booy’s bittersweet second novel highlights the degrees of separation between people and, in the same breath, collapses them. Set in various years from 1937 to 2011 and ranging among France, Britain, and the East and West coasts of the U.S., The Illusion of Separateness (Harper Perennial, $14.99) really takes place where memory and imagination overlap; one character recounts his experiences and another picks up the threads, inventing plausible scenarios to fill the gaps in the stories she grew up with. Most of these stories center on John Bray, an American World War II pilot, his family, friends, and the strangers their lives touch, often in profound and surprising ways. Van Booy is unfailingly compassionate to his characters and they return the favor to each other, finding ways to redeem a painful and destructive world.