5 Must-Read Beach Novels For Your Next Vacation

07/18/2014 09:17 am ET | Updated Mar 12, 2015

Read them by the sea, by the pool, on the porch. Each one is secret vacation inside your vacation.

2014-07-16-1.jpg The Hundred-Year House
By Rebecca Makkai
352 pages; Viking Adult

Author Rebecca Makkai is known for her delightful, whip-smart tales, told with a touch of whimsy (think back to The Borrower, about a librarian who runs off with a dour young reader). Her latest novel is a witty mystery set at a countryside estate. College professor Zee Devohrs returns to live in her family’s historic home Laurelfield, a former arts colony. Along with her comes her husband, Doug, who’s determined to write a book about a long dead poet who once lived there. The two share the grounds with an array of eccentric family members: step sister-in-law, Miriam who makes mosaics out of trash; Zee’s mother, Gracie, the WASP matriarch; and at least one ghost. Then there are locked-up archives of the colony, which Doug sneaks through, discovering secrets that affect not just his own career but his marriage. Makkai’s humorous, expertly orchestrated storytelling will surprise you. Just when you think you know what’s what and who’s who at Laurelfield, hidden identities are revealed and history must be recalibrated. Perfect for a rainy day on the sun porch -- with an old-fashioned glass of lemonade and a musty summerhouse throw around your shoulders.

-- Elisabeth Witchel

2014-07-16-2.jpg I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You

By Courtney Maum
352 pages; Touchstone

How do you say "men are dogs" in French? When a brilliant Parisian lawyer discovers that her painter husband has been having an affair, she does something very un-French: She sends him packing. But now he's trying to win her back. Can she forgive him? Should she? A winning first novel of infidelity, forgiveness and (maybe, just maybe) falling back in love.

-- Natalie Beach

2014-07-16-3.jpg The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing
By Mira Jacob
512 pages; Random House

Having given up her artsy Seattle life as a photographer in order to care for her elderly father, thirty-something Amina returns to her childhood home of Albuquerque, N.M. Once there, she must confront not only her past but her parents’ as well, revisiting an old disastrous visit to India and the tragedies that subsequently resulted, including an act of arson. This is sprawling, poignant, often humorous novel that’s worth missing cocktails on the deck in order to finish a chapter. The pleasure of it comes in the world Mira Jacob so evocatively creates: the family home in Southern India, suburban '80s America (replete with cold war anti-nuke rallies), the quirky, lavish corporate culture of the West Coast dotcom heyday. And let’s not overlook the emotional payoff. Told with humor and sympathy for its characters, the book serves as a bittersweet lesson in the binding power of family, even when we seek to break out from it. “Why is it that fathers so often ensure the outcome they are trying to avoid?” Jacob asks. An indispensable read whether your summer plans mean escaping from -- or bracing for -- encounters with relatives.

-- Elisabeth Witchel

2014-07-16-4.jpg Big Little Lies
By Liane Moriarty
480 pages; Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam

If you're looking for a novel that will turn you into a compulsive book-finisher -- despite the sand flung in your face by passing walkers and the screams of very loud children jumping in waves -- look no further. Moriarty has produced another gripping, satirical hit. Trivia night at Pirriwee Public School comes to an abrupt end when one of the parents ends up dead. But who? The reader is the last to know, since the book jumps back in time, following three women whose lives intersect six months before the fatal party. While the momentum of who actually died drives Big Little Lies forward, it’s can’t-put-downability comes from its darker subplots (read: domestic abuse, bullying, infidelity) that Moriarty explores, even as she pokes fun at idealized suburban life. Laugh -- and perhaps groan -- in recognition, but read to the end. A book that will make you appreciate the long days of summer, when everyone one -- not just kids -- gets a break from school-related pressure.

-- Elisabeth Witchel

2014-07-16-5.jpg The Vacationers

By Emma Straub
304 pages; Riverhead Hardcover

Those who love novels featuring sly humor, sun-drenched islands and family drama will fall fast and hard for this one. A nearly perfect read, beach or otherwise.

-- Natalie Beach

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  • "Mom & Me & Mom" By Maya Angelou
    The memoir can teach anybody to forgive, let go of a tough past and get along with a hell-on-wheels parent (and we mean anybody.) Maya Angelou's moving, honest portrait of her up and down relationship with Vivian Baxter -- the bold, smart, hard-drinking, pistol-toting woman who left Angelou with her grandmother for most of her childhood but reunited with her during her daughter's adolescence -- is full of wisdom, laughs and blockbuster sentences like, "there are times when no one is right and sometimes among family and children, no one can admit that there is no right, and that maybe at the same time there is no wrong," and, "She liberated me from a society that would have had me think of myself as the lower of the low. She liberated me to life." -- Leigh Newman
  • "Dear Life" By Alice Munro
    Because all those subtle, change-everything moments in Munro's fiction are the same ones we need to take note of in our real lives. With her penetrating new collection, Dear Life, Alice Munro demonstrates once again why she deserves her reputation as a master of short fiction. Set mostly against the sprawling backdrop of rural Canada during and just after World War II, these 14 stories explore with exquisite intimacy the characters' pivotal moments. In "Amundsen," a young teacher working at a tuberculosis sanatorium gets swept up in a brief romance that defines the rest of her life. In "To Reach Japan," an aspiring poet turned housewife plots her escape through her own version of a message in a bottle: a cryptic letter sent to a man she has met only once. Nostalgia permeates the collection; events are often refracted through the lens of imperfect memory. (Phrases such as "I think I can remember" appear frequently.) The last four stories, Munro explains in an epigraph, are emotionally -- if not entirely factually -- autobiographical. Taken together, they form an evocative mini-memoir of Munro's hardscrabble childhood on a farm in Ontario. "This is not a story, only life," declares the protagonist of the title narrative. With the subtlety and complexity of Munro's writing, it's hard to tell the difference. -- Pamela Newton
  • "The Complete Poems, 1927 - 1979" By Elizabeth Bishop
    The poet who reminds us all to "Lose something every day." Because the less time you spend agonizing about the little stuff, the more you have for the big, huge, difficult -- and amazing -- stuff. Once out of print, Bishop's love poems ("Insomnia," "The Shampoo") were originally intended for women, but they now seem universal, and her famed villanelle "One Art" is among the greatest poems on loss ever written. -- Carmela Ciuraru
  • "Bossypants" By Tina Fey
    There's only one essay in the world (also known as "The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter" that can explain why your mother was -- and is -- the way she was. And why you are -- and were -- the way you are. And make you wince, laugh and cry all at the same time. -- Leigh Newman
  • "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" By Michael Pollan
    How to eat better, tack a few extra years onto your lifespan and save the planet, all in one paperback. This book -- a look at the megafood industrial complex -- completely changed the way I eat. It shattered me! I'm not going to say that it made my life easier -- it made my life tremendously more difficult -- but it's been worth it. -- Samantha Bee
  • "Personal History" By Katharine Graham
    The woman who proves you can survive the death of a spouse, take over a national newspaper and confront the corruption of the president of the United States. In other words: You can do anything. With grace. In her memoir, Graham not only tells her story -- of a sheltered childhood, years of happy marriage before her husband's mental illness led him to suicide, her decision to lead The Washington Post -- but also gives an insider's take on key moments in 20th-century American politics, like Watergate and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers. "Katharine Graham was a one-of-a-kind American character," says Williams. "But because she operated in what is so often described as a provincial small Southern city in a company town, she wasn't as well known as she probably should have been. Her story is fascinating, and it makes me angry when I hear her described as a female Lou Grant. That's an insult to the gender, to Mrs. Graham -- and to Lou Grant." -- Brian Williams
  • "Salvage the Bones" By Jesmyn Ward
    The novel that helps you remember all those sweeping, real-life tragedies on the television news -- long after the cameras have moved on to other stories. Esch Batiste is the only female in the Pit, a hardscrabble patch of bayou country she has shared with her father and three brothers since their mother died in childbirth. "Sometimes I think [Daddy] forgets that I am a girl," she muses. But 14-year-old Esch is obviously on the cusp of womanhood; she's pregnant by Manny, a neighbor. As Hurricane Katrina gathers strength in the Gulf of Mexico, Esch's besieged, down-on-its-luck family veers toward disaster. Daddy, who is rarely around, and even more rarely sober, struggles to prepare for the storm, which the others insist will never arrive. Randall, the eldest, jumps and shoots and sweats for a basketball scholarship that hangs tantalizingly close. And Skeetah pins his dreams on his beloved China, a killer pit bull whose pups he hopes will bring cash. In the world of Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury USA), brutality is the way to success, and tenderness is found only in memories, which throb like the "phantom pain" Esch imagines Daddy feeling after losing three fingers in an accident. If Ward's prose is occasionally overripe, the novel's hugeness of heart and fierceness of family grip and hold on like Skeetah's pit bull. -- Ellen Feldman
  • "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar" By Cheryl Strayed
    The wise, totally non-judgmental best friend who fits in your purse. While writing her best-selling memoir--and the first Oprah's Book Club 2.0 selection--Wild, author Cheryl Strayed penned an advice column for the literary website The Rumpus. There, she worked anonymously, using the pen name Sugar, replying to letters from readers suffering everything from loveless marriages to abusive, drug-addicted brothers to disfiguring illnesses. The result: intimate, in-depth essays that not only took the letter writer's life into account but also Strayed's. Collected in a book, they make for riveting, emotionally charged reading (translation: be prepared to bawl) that leaves you significantly wiser for the experience. To a livid woman whose husband cheated on her with her employee, she says, "Acceptance asks only that you embrace what's true." To a woman who suffers a late miscarriage, she says, "Don't listen to those people who suggest you should be over your daughter's death by now. ... They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died." She then shares, "I know because I've lived on a few planets that aren't Planet Earth myself." Later, she reveals stories about her own struggles with sexual abuse, divorce and marital infidelity (all of which create a much larger backstory for a reading of Wild). One of the most moving anecdotes in the book is a letter that a 22-year-old reader asks Strayed to write to her younger self: "One hot afternoon during the era in which you've gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin, you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are, when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She'll offer you one of the balloons, but you won't take it because you believe you no longer have the right to such tiny beautiful things. You're wrong. You do." And like most of the pronouncements in this collection, the subject of those last few sentences can -- and should -- be changed to "we." As in, we all have the right to such tiny beautiful things -- both the purple balloon and the compassionate book it inspired. -- Leigh Newman
  • "State of Wonder" By Ann Patchett
    In this fictional world, there is no biological clock; and that is worth considering in this very real life, if only to examine: How much pressure do you feel to have a child? And where is it coming from? Ann Patchett's new tragicomedy, State of Wonder (Harper), is perfect holiday family book-club fodder -- no children or dogs die, no long-term marriages break up, and just about everybody finds an idea or two worth discussing by the fire (for example, healthcare, politics and international travel). She dares to send women into decidedly masculine territory -- violence and corruption in the jungle -- but with a 21st-century twist. Here the quest is not for military might but for marketplace dominance: An American pharmaceutical company hopes to develop "the equivalent of Lost Horizon for American ovaries" to prolong fertility in aging women. Plucked from her placid Minnesota lab, Marina Singh is ordered to the Amazon to find her former mentor, doctor-turned-researcher Annick Swenson, who discovered the potential elixir but has since gone rogue (think Linda Hunt in Marlon Brando mode). The scenes of Marina languishing in Manaus, Brazil, waiting for the elusive Dr. Swenson, offer tropical comedy filled with torpid heat, lost luggage and colorful locals. Then comes the inevitable trip up the river to a native village far from civilization where Dr. Swenson is "the uncontested kingpin," who challenges Marina, and readers, to consider the unintended consequences of choosing whether to disturb the world around us or to let it go on "as if you had never arrived." The large canvas of sweeping moral issues, both personal and global, comes to life through careful attention to details, however seemingly mundane -- from ill-fitting shoes and mosquito bites to a woman tenderly braiding another woman's hair. Ultimately Marina learns to put aside her predisposition to quantify everything with scientific data, especially where affairs of the heart are concerned. "In this life we love who we love," Patchett writes. "There were some stories in which facts were very nearly irrelevant." -- Liza Nelson and Leigh Newman
  • "Lit" By Mary Karr
    Raw, honest reflections for every woman about when a little too much drinking turns into way, way too much. In the letter to her son that opens Mary Karr's irresistible memoir Lit, chronicling a decade of motherhood, alcoholism, and a long, skeptical slog toward faith, she writes, "Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am." With trademark wit, precision, and unfailing courage, Karr recounts her aspiring years, between the day her school principal warned her that "any girl aiming to become a poet was doomed to become ... no more than a common prostitute" and the day, decades later, when her larger-than-life mother would be "born into the ziplock baggie of ash my sister sent me...with the frank message Mom ½, written in laundry pen." Isolated by motherhood, and losing badly her battle with the bottle, Karr takes advice where she can get it: from Henry James, who said, "Be kind, be kind, be kind"; from a halfway-house schizophrenic, who tells her to "go quietly and shine"; from the young doctor who, after Karr's breakdown, likens going to God to breaking up "with the guy who's beating the crap out of you before you can scan the room and find the nice guy who's got a crush on you." And though her first prayers are full of doubt, embarrassment, and hesitation -- "Help me to feel better so I can believe in you, you subtle bastard" -- she eventually surrenders to the idea that "I was made ... not to prove myself worthy but to refine the worth I'm formed from, acknowledge it, own it, spend it on others." -- Pam Houston
  • "The House of Mirth" By Edith Wharton
    For help -- and understanding -- during those days when you realize that you just aren't going to be able to do what other people want you to do. Lily Bart is beautiful and wellborn but without a dowry in the rigid New York society of the early 20th century. She knows that her only way to rise in this milieu is to marry for money, but she sabotages her chances. Caught between her disgust with selling herself on the marriage market and her inability to declare herself to a man she really trusts, she drifts along, becoming ever more unmarriageable. What makes this novel so moving is the way Lily never quite grasps her situation and thus cannot solve it. Her feminism is on the edge of her consciousness but never really guides her life. That lack of clarity becomes Lily's tragedy. -- Erica Jong
  • "Oak: One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings" By Stephen Taylor
    For when you need to slow down time -- and re-see the golden in a floating leaf. Some books show you how to laugh, some show you how to think, but, every once in a while, one will show you how to live. The exquisite Oak: One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings follows the story of artist Stephen Taylor, who decided to paint the same oak tree in the English countryside every day for three years. The titles of his ensuing works reveal the detail with which he pursued his vision: Oak with Crows, Oak After Snow, Oak at Night in Winter, Oak in Early Spring. There are no abstract oaks or evocative splashes of ink meant to suggest an oak. The trees are realistic, some with an almost photographic precision -- revealing the larger point. As the oak changes by the month or hour, the surrounding environment changes. Barley fields are cut down and rise again, jets stream by through the sky, blue tits forage in the leaves, and damselflies swarm below the branches. A singular plant becomes a totem for the passage of time and seasons -- and you, as the viewer -- begin to change too, becoming more observant and aware of the tiny yet enormous natural transformations that take place each day and minute. Seeing, in the truest sense, is the lesson here, one that's taught with such elegance that you'll be bewitched into stopping and contemplating the birch or maple in your own yard that's serving -- as T.S. Eliot once described trees --as "the still point of the turning world." -- Leigh Newman
  • "Song of Solomon" By Toni Morrison
    Everybody needs to believe, at least for a few seconds, that they can fly. It is a novel expressing with passion, tenderness, and a magnificence of language the mysterious primal essence of family bond and conflict, the feelings and experience of all people wanting, and striving to be alive. Featured in Oprah's Book Club 1996
  • "The Fault in Our Stars" By John Green
    Because we all need to feel first love again; even if we know the horrible sob-fest to come at the end. Sixteen-year-old Hazel faces terminal cancer with humor and pluck. But it isn't until she meets Augustus in a support group that she understands how to love or live fully. -- Abbe Wright
  • "A New Earth" By Eckhart Tolle
    How to finally silence that bossy, critical, guilt-infused, ego-driven, totally imaginary voice in your head. This is one of the most important subjects and presented by one of the most important books of our time, A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose. I don't think there's anything more important than awakening and also knowing what your purpose is. -- Oprah Featured in Oprah's Book Club 2008
  • "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" By Carson McCullers
    Because there may come a time when you think you're alone in this world, and this quiet, masterful novel will remind you that you are not. I love this book! I had heard about this book for years and then my dear friend Julia Roberts did an interview in O, The Oprah Magazine and she listed this as one of her favorite books of all times. The book I love so much -- recommended to me by Julia -- is The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It's a great, great read and not hard at all. -- Oprah Featured in Oprah's Book Club 2004
  • "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" By Susan Cain
    Proof that -- hurray! -- you don't actually have to make 50 new friends at cocktail parties. This compelling nonfiction work celebrates the contributions of reserved, cerebral types.
  • "The Portrait of A Lady" By Henry James
    A reminder that you just can't marry the person you want to be at 40. To arrive at that person, you have to do the work yourself, starting at age 20. In this masterful novel, spirited, unconventional young American Isabel Archer journeys to Europe to find freedom. What she discovers is a fortune -- and all the complexities of having the means to do exactly what you want to in life, but not the direction, support or understanding.
  • "The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition)" By Betty Friedan
    The bible of the 21st-Century woman. To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan's iconic feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, W.W. Norton is releasing a commemorative edition, with a new introduction by The New York Times columnist Gail Collins and an afterword by best-selling author Anna Quindlen. O asked Arianna Huffington, president and editor in chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, to share what the book means to her. "The Feminine Mystique forever changed the conversation as well as the way women view themselves. If you've never read it, read it now and reflect on what our mothers and grandmothers were feeling at the time. It's a great moment to celebrate this milestone work, which fundamentally altered the course of women's lives." -- Arianna Huffington
  • "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" By Sheryl Sandberg
    The sequel to that bible. Sheryl Sandberg -- chief operating officer of Facebook and one of Time's "100 Most Influential People in the World" -- writes her manifesto on the ways that women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers and the need for them to "sit at the table." -- Leigh Newman
  • "The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson" By Emily Dickinson
    We all need to know that "Hope is the thing with feathers." She wrote almost 1,800 poems, but few were published in her lifetime. She rarely left her room, much less her father's house; locals regarded her as an eccentric. Yet Dickinson's verse grappled with big issues -- love and death and solitude -- and her passion is nearly unparalleled.
  • "Great Expectations" By Charles Dickens
    About those loves and longings dating back to childhood that you still might be keeping alive? You can -- and should -- let them go. Narrated by a middle-aged Pip, Great Expectations can be read on many levels -- as a morality play of a young boy's coming of age and his unexpected rise from the lower to the leisure class, or as an ironic commentary and social critique on how money affects everyone around it. It can also be enjoyed as a suspense-filled mystery complete with secrets, shady characters, thieves and murderers of all shapes and sizes. Featured in Oprah's Book Club 2010
  • "Say You're One of Them" By Uwem Akpan
    Stories that help you remember what childhood feels like -- in all its sadness, joy, observations and complexities. First-time author Uwem Apkan writes each story through the eyes of children and masterfully both captures the innocence and the horror of the unimaginable events these children witness. -- Oprah Featured in Oprah's Book Club 2009
  • "Blue Nights" By Joan Didion
    The memoir that helps with the difficulties of forgiving...(gulp) yourself. Blue Nights does what memoirs can do best: illuminate a crucial portion -- and not the entirety -- of a human life. In this case, prose master Joan Didion focuses on her relationship with her daughter, Quintana Roo, who she adopted in the late 1960s. Quintana grew up in the rarefied world of Malibu and movie-making. Despite the advantages -- the closets full of Liberty lawn dresses, the bassinet from Saks -- she struggled with the discovery of her biological parents, grappling with mental issues known collectively as "borderline personality," and using alcohol as a way to cope. Her struggle to recover from brain surgery, was covered in Didion's previous book The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir that examined the extraordinary and excruciating loss that Didion suffered when her husband died and Quintana was hospitalized for many months. Blue Nights picks up a few years later after Quintana too has died. The lens of the story is less jaw-dropping in terms of fast-moving, tidal-wave events -- and that is its power. The lens of Blue Nights is less extraordinary, less jaw-dropping in terms of circumstance -- and that is its power. -- Leigh Newman
  • "Swimming Studies" By Leanne Shapton
    So you did not win the gold medal in the Olympics -- or receive the Nobel Prize or make it to the final round of "So You Think You Can Dance" -- by age 20 or 30 or 40. You will have another destiny; one even more rewarding. Growing up in Canada, Leanne Shapton was one of a handful of teenagers hand-picked to become world-class swimmers. She made 5 a.m. practices, traveled to distant meets and developed an obsession with time due to stop watches that gave her "the ability to make still lifes out of tenths of seconds." And then came the moment at age 14, when it occurs to her "gently, in a quiet flash: I'm not going to go to the Olympics. I will not be going. Not me." Rather that quit the team, she continues to train, and the thoughtful, exquisitely written book that results is ostensibly about her lifelong relationship to the sport, complete with photos of her various bathing suits and meditations on the difference between swimming (i.e., competitive swimming) and bathing (i.e., swimming for fun). The story underneath all this, however, concerns a troubling question: What do we do with ourselves when we're good (or even very good) at something we love, but not great? Shapton finds her way, meeting her husband and using her "feel" for water as a painter. She even includes some haunting, cobalt blue illustrations of pools she frequents as an adult, as well as a color guide to different swimming smells, such as "coach: fresh laundry, Windbreaker nylon, Mennen Speed Stick, Magic Marker, and bologna." These extra visual elements dazzle, but the specifics of this world and her insightful take on her own far-from-ordinary life are what makes any reader wonder if Shapton's gold medal might have already been won -- in writing. -- Leigh Newman
  • "Daring Greatly" By Brené Brown, PhD
    Need to get over shame? Read it. Need to open up to others? Read it. Need to laugh a little in the process? Read it. Okay, just read it. You'll feel better. Based on 12 years of research, Brené Brown argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather a courageous act -- one necessary for living "a wholehearted life." -- Leigh Newman
  • "Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, 5th Edition" By Susan M. Love, MD, and Karen Lindsey
    The latest research. The straightest talk. The body part about which we all need to be experts. This 752-page tome tells you everything you need to know about your mammary glands, including new research about the ways that local environments influence the odds of your getting breast cancer. -- Leigh Newman
  • "A Long Way Gone" By Ishmael Beah
    On your toughest, no-good, horrible day, this book will make you grateful for something we all take for granted -- peace. This is the story of a former child soldier in Sierra Leone who now lives in the States. He's gone through these incredibly harrowing experiences, but he's also inflicted terrible suffering on others. I think that he will probably spend the rest of his life atoning for what he did. We're so protected in our little bubble, and we get to be concerned about the cast of Dancing with the Stars. I feel as if the universe has been sending me messages, including a book like this, to help me get perspective and make me feel grateful for the life I have. -- Samantha Bee
  • "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" By Julia Child
    You need to learn how to make beef Bourguignonne. If only because you will have a big, bubbling pot of it, which will make celebrating crucial events very easy -- ones that you might otherwise be tempted to dismiss as "too much work" For example: your 39th birthday. The cookbook so profound, it changed a culture, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is Julia Child's first masterpiece. From Poulet au Porto to Boeuf Bourguignonne to Lobster Thermidor, Julia Child makes even the most complex recipe seem easy enough to try. Pair it with the Julie Powell-inspired movie, Julie and Julia, and you have a perfectly timeless Mother's Day gift. -- Melissa Hellstern
  • "NW" By Zadie Smith
    For those days when you feel as if your brain is dying, due to the never-ending mundane: a novelist who thinks as insightfully as she writes. NW, Zadie Smith's inventive and compassionate novel of aspiration, identity, and social hierarchy, takes its name from the part of London in which it is set -- North West -- a multiethnic, multiracial, mixed-income community where drug addicts wander the streets and wealthy entrepreneurs live among tradesmen. Sometimes using unconventional techniques -- she includes computer-generated walking directions and the text of headstones -- Smith tells the story of three natives of the area: best friends Natalie and Leah, and Felix, who at first seems to have no connection to the others. Each is determined to rise above a hardscrabble childhood. Felix, a former production assistant, links himself to a dissolute, aristocratic lover he meets on a film set. Natalie becomes a lawyer and marries a well-born banker. Leah attends a prestigious university in Scotland but returns home as an underpaid worker at a charity, suffering both guilt for being more successful than her parents and insecurity about not fitting in with an affluent crowd. When Natalie invites her to dinner parties, Leah and her husband "have no gift for anecdote" and "look down at their plates and cut their food with great care" while the others chat and laugh. Meanwhile Natalie -- so set on remaking herself, she's discarded her given name, Keisha -- lives a double life, engaging in sexual encounters with anonymous partners found on the Internet. Natalie's world collides with Felix's in a violent incident that forces her to peer "over into the pit that separates people who have known intolerable pain from people who haven't." There to comfort her is Leah, who understands the cost and complexity of her choices, as well as the gains. -- Leigh Newman

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