Sex, love, and motherhood…The best summer reads this year tackle highly personal issues while offering searingly insightful feminist commentary. From Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise to Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, see below for the most gripping books to read now.
The latest from Pulitzer Prize nominee Susan Choi may be set in the American south during the 1980s, but it’s also one of the most insightful commentaries on life in the Me Too era. At the start of the novel, 15-year-old students Sarah and David fall madly in love in the way that only adolescents can while studying at the fictional Citywide Academy of Performing Arts. Yet, there’s a third party who seems bizarrely interested in their relationship: a charismatic drama teacher named Mr Kingsley who subtly manipulates the brilliant young teenagers around him in a way that will have lasting consequences for all of them.
If you only read a single debut this year, make it The Farm. Set in Golden Oaks, a resort-like centre for surrogates, the novel follows young Filipina immigrant Jane as she joins the strictly hierarchical resort, built to cater to the super-wealthy. (The “hosts” receive a major cash bonus upon delivery – with a deduction in the event of a C-section – in exchange for handing over total control of their bodies for nine months.) Yet the facility’s terrifying owner Mae Yu gets more than she bargained for when the mothers start to rebel. It’s an especially poignant read given the current news cycle.
Patron Saint of Creatives Elizabeth Gilbert returns with her first novel since 2013’s The Signature of All Things. Despite the fact that it was written shortly after Gilbert lost her partner to cancer, City of Girls is an uplifting joy of a novel, set in the world of musical theatre in Manhattan during World War II. Its protagonist, 19-year-old Vivian Morris, takes a job as a seamstress at the Lily Playhouse – quickly becoming the toast of its glamorous showgirl’s thanks to her elaborate needlework. Cue a whirlwind of Harlem nights spent watching the likes of Billie Holiday and Louis Prima perform; a tumultuous first romance with a leading man; and a tabloid-fuelled scandal that leads to a powerful feminist awakening. Expect to spot a copy on every beach towel come June.
Francesca Segal is best known for her novels The Innocents and The Awkward Age, but Mother Ship proves that she’s a gifted memoirist as well. Written in the form of diary entries over the course of 56 days, the narrative largely takes place within the confines of a neonatal unit, where Segal lived after her twin girls were born 10 weeks early. In typically candid fashion, she refers to the hospital floor as the milking shed – recording the behaviours of the quirky characters she meets there in detail. Partly an ode to the NHS, partly a moving reflection on the highs and lows of early motherhood, it deals with everything from libido to breastfeeding in a way that is simultaneously heart wrenching and deeply funny.
Journalist Lisa Taddeo spent nearly a decade researching her brilliant nonfiction work Three Women, conducting thousands of hours of interviews with her trio of protagonists. The focus of those discussions? The many varied manifestations of their sexual desires. There’s 23-year-old Maggie in North Dakota, whose life has been shaped by a relationship with her married English teacher that ended in a devastating fashion; Indiana housewife Lina who begins an affair with a high school flame after her partner refuses to sleep with her; and Sloane, a glamorous restaurant owner in wealthy Rhode Island whose husband encourages her to bring home other men to join them in bed. In a year when female sexuality is one of the hottest topics of debate, it’s a must-read.