For some reason I had it in mind that 2019 had not been a very good reading year for me. Then I went back through my blog posts and discovered that, while there isn’t really one stand-out “best of the year” the way there sometimes is, there have been plenty of reading highlights, and hardly any outright duds. (That in itself is a good enough reason to keep blogging, if you ask me.) According to my book math, that means that overall 2019 has actually been a better than average reading year! Here’s a look back at some of its greatest hits, some also-rans, a few minor disappointments, and some failures (maybe mine, maybe the books’).
The Best Books I Read in 2019
John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People was less fun, I suppose, but it was a moving and thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the saga of Smiley and his longtime adversary Karla. At once triumphant and mournful, it leaves us with the lingering dissatisfaction of knowing that “some wars can only be won by losing, by giving up your allegiance to the very thing you are fighting for.”
Anna Burns’s brilliant Milkman may be a historical novel about the Troubles but–in part through its idiosyncratic narration, which gives the story an allegorical cast–Burns ensures that that “we aren’t left with any comfortable sense that the kind of trouble they were about, or that the novel is about, is safely in the past, or only in Ireland.”
Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free was a slow burn but (like Melmoth, but in a much quieter register) it effectively combines taut suspense with deeper reflections about “the kinds of choices we all have to make in our lives about where to go and why, and … what we hope to find if we ever get there.”
William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault quietly but powerfully “settles us into the day-to-day possibilities of grace without insisting that a life without more than that is a failure”; both Trevor’s beautiful prose and Lucy’s usettling story convinced me that this is an author I want to read much more of.
Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border was another book that made me want to read more of the author’s back catalog. It has the same “cerebral energy” that appeals to me in Sarah Moss’s fiction; “it’s a novel that is clearly motivated by ideas but it isn’t overwhelmed by them.”
Vera Caspary’s Laura turned out to be that unexpected thing for me–a noir novel I thoroughly enjoyed: “it has as much literary flair as anything I’ve read by Hammett or Chandler, and it pulls off its tricks without glamorizing violence (as Hammett especially often seems to) and with a woman at its center who is herself, not just an object for male fantasy.”
Other Books That Were Also Very Good
Reading John Le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, I missed Smiley–not just the man but what he brought to his books–for all their melancholy, “there’s something lovable as well as admirable about Smiley, something comforting, even, in what he stands for (and fights for).” Still, Charlie turned out to be, if not admirable, at least interesting and sympathetic–“torn to pieces,” as Le Carré said, “by the battle between two peoples who both have justice on their side.”
I really liked Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, a “reticent and unassuming” novel about two equally unassuming women who want only “to live quietly and honestly, and together.”
I found Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing immediately gripping and ultimately very poignant. In different hands Maud’s voice or story could have felt contrived or manipulative, but while Elizabeth Is Missing “is certainly a clever book, … it is never clever at Maud’s expense.”
Lissa Evans was a happy discovery for me in 2019, largely thanks to Dorian‘s recommendations. I enjoyed all three of her novels that I read, but especially Crooked Heart, which for some reason I did not write up here!
Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise was an unexpectedly delightful treat–it looks twee, but it turns out to be a comic novel suffused with tenderness (and, as a slightly disdainful review by Lucy Ellmann indicates, the anti-Ducks, Newburyport, about my experience of which see below). I can imagine rereading Come, Thou Tortoise regularly, just for the fun of it–and also because I know I didn’t pick up on all the novel’s twists and tricks the first time through.
I loved George Saunders’s “Tenth of December.” No, I didn’t format that incorrectly: I mean the story, not the collection, because it was the only one in the book “that seemed to me clearly written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo.”
I really admired–and was ultimately quite moved by–the careful self-effacement of Bart Van Es’s The Cut Out Girl. His family history project has broader significance as “part of the larger responsibility we all have not to look away, and then to reflect on the meaning of what we have seen.”
Some Books That Were Perfectly Fine
I had fun reading Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and The Word Is Murder (which, I agree with Dorian, is better than Magpie), but I think that might be enough Horowitz for me (except for rewatching Foyle’s War, which I am very keen to do). I admire his ingenuity and envy his brio and productivity, but I missed the sense of heft–of moral depth and complexity–that I get from the crime writers I like best.
Tessa Hadley’s Late In the Day was one of several highly polished, conspicuously competent novels I’ve read in the last few years that left me wanting more–more risk-taking? more energy? Or maybe wanting less–I find it hard to get excited about novels so well-crafted that I’m aware at every moment of the author crafting it. That’s why Melmoth (for one) was a favorite of mine this year and Late In the Day (good as it is) wasn’t. Ditto Joan Silber’s Improvement–also smart, well written, and (as I read it, anyway) a bit soulless.
My review of Emma Donoghue’s Akin will be in Canadian Notes and Queries in the new year. I enjoyed reading it quite a bit: even though I found it somewhat contrived, Donoghue is a good enough storyteller to carry me along. It made me think, though, about why The Wonder was (I thought) so much better–not just fine but genuinely good. Maybe Donoghue (like Ann Patchett?) should write fewer novels, so that her ideas for each one have longer to deepen?
Some Books I Expected To Be Better
I absolutely love the idea of Persephone Books, and it is thrilling in principle to see so many publishers devoting themselves now to bringing back “lost classics.” Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance did not, however, convince me that she has been unduly neglected. It was OK–but it rather reinforced than subverted Carmen Callil’s insistence that Virago’s books not dip below “the Whipple line.” That said, while Elizabeth Jenkins’s The Tortoise and the Hare (published by Virago) is (in my opinion, of course) a better novel, is it a much better novel? I called it a “small gem,” so I guess I think the answer is yes.
I had high hopes for Tea Obreht’s Inland–I’m not sure why, in retrospect, as I did not really love The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht does a lot of things really well in Inland, but I didn’t think they added up to as much as they could have, especially as an intervention into the Western as a novel.
I also had high expectations for Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, which has been very widely and effusively praised. I found it “a very readable novel, perfectly pitched and crafted to provoke discussion about Celestial’s choice,” but for me “the whole was, somehow, less than the sum of its parts.”
Some Books I Found Especially Challenging (In A Good Way)
I am not a very good reader of Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and The Years was actually harder for me to make sense of than To the Lighthouse. On the other hand, I found my struggle with it very productive intellectually: for once I felt that I understood something of what Woolf was trying to do, which I read quite a bit about in her diaries and in the original version of The Pargiters, and I was fascinated by thinking about it in the contexts that Woolf’s comments made relevant. My reading of The Years so far has confirmed for me that Woolf was right to call it a failure–but I think it is an interesting, even a revealing, failure, which is a point I plan to come back to in 2020.
2019 was the year I finally read The Odyssey. I read it in Emily Wilson’s lauded translation–and in retrospect I’m not sure if that was the best or the worst choice for me. It was very crisp, fast-moving, and graphic–“nothing, in her version, really gets in the way of the story-telling”–but was it epic?
Some Books I Found Especially Challenging (In A Bad Way)
Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport may be as brilliant as everyone says it is: I won’t know until or unless I finish it! I waded through the first 100 pages and hated it–not every minute of it, but that unevenness was part of the problem for me. Every time I started to fall into the propulsive rhythm of its stream-of-consciousness narration, the narrator would trip into random word associations that completely broke up any developing logic or momentum for me. More than the novel’s (nominally) unbroken single sentence–which, as others have commented, simply substitutes the narrative tic “the fact that” for conventional punctuation–the unbroken single paragraph also proved an obstacle because it offers no visual cues to one’s reading at all. If I dared to look up from the page, I had a hopeless time finding my place on it again, which meant a lot of frustrated rereading.
Both of these complaints of course say as much or more about me as a reader as about Ducks, Newburyport as a book. Still, I find it both funny and frustrating to hear people suggest any negative reactions are somehow about a woman “daring” to write a long or difficult book–or a long book about domestic details. You can be (as I am) all for those things and still find a particular book inaccessible or unappealing. I think for me the stumbling block is that I don’t go to fiction to find the chaos of everyday life reproduced: I go to fiction to find it shaped into something artful. Maybe Ellmann does that–as I said, I can’t be sure unless I read the whole thing. Will I finish it in 2020? Maybe.
A Few New or Renewed 19th-Century Friends
Dombey and Son has long been at the top of my list of “Dickens novels I should probably read instead of just rereading Bleak House.” It is good–but not as good as Bleak House.
Rereading New Grub Street confirmed that it is at once a very good novel with lots of relevant themes, especially about literary value and the literary marketplace–and that if I’m going to assign anything by Gissing, I’ll stick with The Odd Women. Everything about New Grub Street just seemed too obvious, somehow: what would we interpret about it?
And that’s it–not everything I read in 2019, of course, but the books that, for better and for worse, seem most worthy of note. I feel as if I learned a lot from my reading this year and also, more often than I’d remembered until I did this review, had a lot of fun. I’m not sure what accounts for the misimpression that 2019 was a bit of a reading slump. Maybe it’s because often, by whatever chance, I read the very best book of the year at the very end of the year, and that creates a retrospective glow that was missing this time.
That said, I’m about to read two very different books I’ve been really looking forward to: Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm. Unless my hopes are thoroughly dashed (which I really don’t expect they will be), this means 2020 will begin on a high note!