Literary fiction with a twist by some very smart women.
My favourite books for 2022 have fallen neatly into two lists. I enjoyed them all, but my very favourites are the ones could be described as ‘literary,’ though I don’t really subscribe to these definitions. Here are my top titles for the first half of next year:
Impossible by Sarah Lotz (HarperCollins, March 2022)
When Nick sends Bee an angry email, mistaking her for a non-paying client, their connection is instant. My only concern was that I wasn't even a third of the way through the book, and they were clearly meant for each other. How was this going to stay interesting? Then the twist. Oh boy. No spoilers, but…damn! I love alternative universe romances such as The Versions of Us and The Post-Birthday World, but this one knocks most meta-verse romances into a cocked hat. Is there a way for Nick and Bee to be together after all? Never mind impossible, this is irresistible.
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan (Simon and Schuster, March 2022)
Like The Handmaid's Tale crossed with Orange is the New Black, this bold and extraordinary book follows frustrated single mother Frida into a female-only world of incarceration and trauma. When Frida has a bad day and leaves her baby daughter alone for several hours, she finds herself sentenced to an upstate social experiment featuring compliance exercises and child-sized dolls. A nail-biting thriller as well as a great satire on the impossible pressures placed on today's mothers, while the men, including Frida's punchable ex-husband, get off lightly. Weird, wonderful and thought-provoking.
Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? By Lizzie Damilola Blackburn (Penguin, March 2022)
Yinka is thirty-one, short-haired, dark-skinned and unhappily employed by an investment bank. Her little sister Kemi and cousin Ola have settled down and had children. When her other cousin Rachel announces her engagement and Yinka's ex appears at the party, she sets herself the task of finding a date for the wedding, either at church, on Tinder or in her imagination. What starts as a light tale of huzband-hunting turns into an exploration of the impact of colourism, grief and mental health problems ('counselling isn't just for the white man, you know,' says one wise character). An entertaining, insightful read.
At the Table by Claire Powell (Fleet, March 2022)
Linda and Gerry Maguire (yes, that is his name) are splitting up after more than thirty years of marriage. Their children, hard-working, hard-drinking Nicole, and people-pleaser Jamie, are more upset by this than they thought they would be. Jamie is about to get married to Lucy, but feels like something is wrong and resorts to extreme diet and exercise to make him feel in control of his life. However, this is really Nicole's story, as she tries to reconnect with her ex while boozing her way through London. You'll be crossing your fingers that they can all turn things around.
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow (John Murray Press, April 2022)
Hazel is nine months pregnant when her beloved husband Myron is lynched. Almost forty years later, their daughter Miriam returns to Memphis with her two young girls Joan and Mya in tow, to stay with her half-sister August, the best singer and hairdresser in town. August and Miriam have their private sorrows, particularly when it comes to money worries and August's son Derek, who assaulted Joan when she was three years old. Now a talented artist, captivated by the beauty of the neighbourhood and its inhabitants, teenage Joan is not in a hurry to forgive him. A compelling and life-affirming read.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday, April 2022)
This glorious book is apparently going to be adapted as a TV programme and I can absolutely see the very talented Brie Larsen as Elizabeth Zott, a straightforward scientific woman who loves cooking and rowing on the erg machine, surrounded by mediocre men. Elizabeth's meeting and falling in love with Calvin Evans (and the immediate 'chemistry' between them) was the hardest part of the book to put down. This is really one of the best depictions of love that I've seen in recent fiction, followed by equally compelling takes on motherhood, female friendship and the relationship between a human and a beloved animal (the dog Six-Thirty).
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (Pushkin Press, May 2022)
Two parish spinsters meet once a year for a night of passion and potato salad. A rebellious young girl named after a Biblical killer longs for the preacher's wife. Five sisters and their bossy grandmother write to the half-sister they've never met. A lesbian couple from the South struggle with the snow in their new home, and an artistic woman learns to love her body before giving it to a physicist she meets at a conference. Sexy, and as tasty as the peach cobblers and crab-bakes in its pages, Philyaw's church ladies are frank, bawdy and frequently lustful. Great stories.
That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan (May)
Gillian and Dovie, two women unable to go public with their love, share a small flat in overheated 1950s New York until something terrible interrupts their private bliss. (As a happily married lesbian, I've never felt so lucky to have been born in the 1980s). There are two narratives, one set in the 1950s as gentle but determined Dovie struggles to hold onto her love. The second narrative starts in the 1970s where we meet Ava, still in high school and pouring all her hope into an unrequited crush rather than dealing with her mentally ill mother. Powerful and original.
Idol by Louise O’Neill (Penguin, May 2022)
Brace yourselves, the young queen of darkness is back and this time she’s doing America. Samantha is an influencer with millions of fans and a murky past. When high-school best friend Lisa makes an allegation against her, she goes back to her home town to salvage her career. As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that Samantha believes her own hype and doesn't know what's true any more. Did her parents starve her and send her to a sadistic diet doctor, or a genuine eating disorders specialist? Was her father cold and abusive, or a buttoned-up man of his time who loved her? And what actually happened with Lisa? Another beautiful nightmare from O’Neill.
The Poet by Louisa Reid (Doubleday, June 2022)
Four years after graduation, Emma is lost and drifting. At twenty-one, she seemed to have it all. A first-class Oxford degree, a relationship with Tom and a slim, prizewinning volume of her own poetry. (She admits to plagiarising some of it, a foreshadowing of this verse novel’s focus on authorship and ownership). Emma's thesis on lesbian poet Charlotte Mew has been gathering dust, but Tom has his eye on it and only one person, his student Lois, might be able to help. A galvanising exploration of men's and women's lives in the arts, and their injustices when seen side by side.
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Rebecca Wait (Quercus, July 2022)
I can see why this is being called 2022's 'Sorrow and Bliss.' I fell in love with awkward Alice and her eccentric family. The plot revolves around Hanna, Alice's twin, and her mother's experience of growing up with Katy, her schizophrenic sister. Unlike Sorrow and Bliss, this book mentions the illness by name, but the characters disagree on whether Hanna has inherited it or had a one-off breakdown due to overwork at Cambridge. Hanna thinks the latter, and is unafraid of relapsing, whereas their neurotic mother can't shake the fear that Hanna's future will be as terrible as Katy's. Moving and frequently hilarious.
Hope you enjoyed these recommendations. I'll be posting my favourite genre fiction recommendations from the first half of 2022 very shortly.
Image of a young woman in a chair reading from www.freepik.com