This past month, I discovered two novelists who are compelling storytellers and best of all, have written multiple well-received books I can add to my “must read” list. It’s always a delight to try something new—and love it.
A number of trusted friends have recommended one or another of Chicago-based novelist and short story writer Rebecca Makkai’s books. I opted to start with her first, “The Borrower,” published in 2011. The comments of Pulitzer Prize winner (and one of my favorites) Richard Russo supported my choice. “Rarely is a first novel as smart and engaging and learned and funny and moving as ‘The Borrower,’” he wrote. “Rebecca Makkai is a writer to watch, as sneakily ambitious as she is unpretentious.”
Makkai’s elegantly-crafted story is about an odd couple’s road trip. Lucy Hull, a 20-something uber-eccentric children’s librarian, accompanies library patron Ian Drake, a 10-year-old reading-obsessed nerd, when he decides to run away from home. Lucy convinces herself that she is not kidnapping Ian; rather, she is saving him from his parents’ misguided efforts to ensure their precocious child is not tempted to stray from the dictates of their strict Christian beliefs. As such, Mrs. Drake restricted Ian’s reading choices and enrolled him in anti-gay classes; they don’t “do Halloween,” she told Lucy.
Along the way—from Hannibal, Missouri, through stops in disparate locales in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Vermont—comic moments as well as some quasi-dangerous ones accrue in the duo’s encounters with a host of quirky characters. In the spirit of a coming-of-age or voyage of discovery tale, both protagonists work through some of their personal issues.
Lucy’s references to quality children’s fiction—Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and of course, classics about runaway children—abound; there are no superheroes here. Her love of libraries and passion for literature is paramount, the message being that while immersing ourselves in well-told stories, which may mandate a willing suspension of disbelief (as it definitely does here), we learn about ourselves and inform our own choices.
At the recommendation of both my parents, I started reading the second book I recommend here on my way to visit them in Florida. Chicago trial attorney and novelist Ronald H. Balson’s “The Girl from Berlin” tells a fascinating and moving historically-based story with an engaging, strong female protagonist (created by a male author!). In addition, the book is rich with allusions to classical music and fine wine and is set mostly in Italy’s picture-perfect Tuscany region.
I appreciated, too, that it functions as a cautionary tale. In evoking the era when fascism rose in Germany and Italy, Balson pointed to subtle parallels to the current political climate of the United States.
Although “The Girl from Berlin” is the most recent—the fifth—in Balson’s series about the exploits of attorney Catherine Lockhart and private investigator Liam Taggart, there’s no need to read the other four first; the book stands completely on its own. Here, at the request of a friend, the couple travel from their Chicago home base to Italy where they go up against an evil corporation’s attempt to steal an elderly woman’s vineyard. (It may seem a bit unlikely that they leave behind, albeit in capable hands, their very young son.)
Like many contemporary novels I’ve read recently, the narrative goes back and forth in time in alternating chapters—here from the 1930s to 2017—each informing and intimately related to the other. The 1930s sections constitute a Holocaust story, with a few historical figures appearing alongside the fictional ones. It is another one of those hopeful stories—think of the movie “Life Is Beautiful”—that ironically emphasize how love and human connection helped people survive horrific situations. The slightly less captivating modern story is a legal mystery with roots in the historical sections.
The historical chapters take the form of a book within the book. Unable to articulate her story without undue pain, the elderly woman asks the American pair to read a manuscript written by the young girl of the title and protagonist of the 1930s section. Through her memoir, Ada Baumgarten, a Jewish violin prodigy forced to flee Berlin to escape the Nazis, guides them in their quest for justice.