Holiday Newsletter: Other Times, Other Places

A longstanding P&P tradition, our Holiday Newsletter lists staff reviews of our favorite books of 2016 and unique gift ideas. Other Times, Other Places is a trio of historical fictions that span not just decades, but political landscapes as well.

Thus Bad Begins
 Javier Marias

Set in 1980, two years after the end of Franco’s dictatorship, Javier Marías’s fourteenth novel unfolds when the country’s wounds are still raw. If the Francoists are going to be prosecuted for their evil deeds, now is the time. But would investigating the past help the present? Is “disinterested justice” on a national scale even possible? Taking its title from Hamlet, Thus Bad Begins explores questions of revenge, accountability, and deception, putting these timeless philosophical debates in the context of both a political and a personal framework. The latter proves the more difficult to resolve, and the heart of Marías’s deft, well-paced narrative is an unhappy marriage. His narrator, employed as a personal assistant to a renowned, one-eyed filmmaker, is appalled at how badly his boss treats his wife. His curiosity turns to intrigue. He eavesdrops. He spies. He witnesses. He wonders what mystery he’s piecing together — and why. Recounting these scenes years later, he asks what difference it makes to tell the story; since time “is turning everything into fiction” anyway, who cares about this couple? Unfolding in long graceful sentences, this discursive work is as playful as it is thought-provoking. Marías teases with Shakespeare allusions (his main characters, Juan de Vere and Eduardo Muriel, together seem to stand in for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, perennial candidate for the Bard), as well as references to Hitchcock films, making this both a visual and an intellectual experience, a novel to savor as much for its rich games as for its language and ideas.

— Laurie G.

The Wonder
 Emma Donoghue

Set in Athlone, Ireland, in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s suspenseful ninth novel features superb pacing, vivid historical details, small-town secrets, and questions of faith framed as life-and-death matters. The protagonist is Lib, a London nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, who comes to the village fresh from the Crimean War. She is charged with discovering the truth about Anna, an eleven-year-old who has fasted for four months, with no apparent ill effects. Can the girl really be sustained by the love of God alone? As tourists and pilgrims flock to see The Wonder, Lib and a local nun keep watch around the clock; Lib, at least, is sure that someone is secretly passing food to Anna. Her partner sees things differently, and as the tension between them rises, Anna’s health does indeed start to suffer. But little by little Anna confides in Lib, and as Lib comes to understand what’s really going on, she both revises her notions of the Irish and fears she must commit murder in order to save Anna. The final outcome of the case — which is based on actual events — is as startling as it is unforgettable.

— Angela S.

A Gentleman in Moscow
 Amor Towles

With The Rules of Civility, his acclaimed debut novel of 1930s New York, Amor Towles set new standards for elegant prose, wit, and nuanced depiction of class and character. In his second novel this impeccable stylist covers Soviet Russia from the 1920s to the 1950s — but history isn’t really his focus here. Rather, long beguiled by Moscow’s grand Hotel Metropol, Towles wondered what it would be like to live amid such glamor all the time; he dreamt up A Gentleman in Moscow to find out. The eponymous figure — perhaps the last of his kind — is Count Alexander Rostov. Truly an “unrepentant aristocrat,” Rostov faces down the Bolsheviks with fine manners and social graces. This personal code of conduct sees him through when he becomes a Former Person in 1922 and is sentenced to indefinite house arrest in the Metropol, where he adapts his impeccable manners to his new position as headwaiter, tutors Soviet apparatchiks in French, and identifies as G-sharp the creak of the mattress springs in the tiny attic room he occupies for thirty-two years. In this shimmering story of graciousness under pressure, both Rostov and the Hotel retain their dignity throughout the Soviet era, rising above the period’s privations, repressions, and dreaded midnight knocks at the door.

— Laurie G.


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