7 book covers: What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, How It All Began by Penelope Lively, We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker, The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, The Last Flight by Julie Clark, A Little Hope by Ethan Joella

6 Degrees of Separation: “Messy, messy lives”

It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.

This month we begin with Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through. Here’s the description from Goodreads:

A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer. In each of these people the woman finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences. The narrator orchestrates this chorus of voices for the most part as a passive listener, until one of them makes an extraordinary request, drawing her into an intense and transformative experience of her own.

In What Are You Going Through, Nunez brings wisdom, humor, and insight to a novel about human connection and the changing nature of relationships in our times. A surprising story about empathy and the unusual ways one person can help another through hardship, her book offers a moving and provocative portrait of the way we live now. 

I haven’t yet read this book, but it sounds like one I’d be interested in reading because it deals with many of the themes I’m most drawn to in fiction. The synopsis suggested as much, and a look at some of the comments on Goodreads confirmed that suggestion.

So I’ve decided to do things a bit differently this month. Instead of starting with a book and constructing a chain in which each entry leads into the next, I’m going to list six books with themes that sound similar to those in What Are You Going Through. This approach came to me after I read this comment about Nunez’s novel on Goodreads:

How do we live our days, our lives, who do we meet, think about[?] How do we become involved in things we’d rather not. How one thing leads to another. How these experiences enrich us [in] ways not immediately apparent. Messy, messy life, full of friendship, love, joy but sorrows too. All making us the people we are.

1. How It All Began by Penelope Lively begins with the mugging of Charlotte, an older woman who falls and breaks her hip. Charlotte then requires help from her daughter Rose, who therefore cannot accompany her employer on a business trip. So the employer’s niece has to fill in on the trip. When the niece sends a text to inform her lover, his wife intercepts it, and then . . . . This entertaining tale demonstrates how seemingly random events shape who we become:

What we add up to, in the end, is a handful of images, apparently unrelated and unselected. Chaos, you would think, except that it is the chaos that makes each of us a person. Identity, it is called in professional speak.

2. We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker differs greatly in tone and content from Lively’s novel but also illustrates how actions have consequences that affect our future and shape our lives. In this somber story, events of 30 years earlier have had an impact on the lives of not only the people involved but also the next generation.

3. The protagonist of The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda has lived a life shaped by events from her childhood. As a young child, Arden Maynor was swept away by a gigantic rainstorm. For several days, amidst intense media coverage, rescue workers searched and neighbors held prayer vigils. Against all odds, the child was finally found clinging to a storm drain. Arden’s mother wrote a popular book about her daughter’s rescue. Now a young woman, Arden has changed her name and moved far away to avoid the notoriety of her past. But as the 20th anniversary of her miraculous rescue approaches, she must confront her past and discover the truth of what happened to her all those years ago.

4. Emily St. John Mandel uses the seeming randomness of events as the basis for her most recent novel, The Glass Hotel. Jonathan Alkaitis lives the glamorous high life of the rich and famous until the huge international Ponzi scheme he’s running to finance his lifestyle implodes. The novel explores the lives of several of the victims of the financial collapse and how those lives intersect and overlap.

5. In The Last Flight by Julie Clark, two women meet in an airport bar while waiting to board different flights. As can sometimes happen with strangers we’ll never see again, they strike up a conversation and learn that each is fleeing from a desperate situation. They decide to trade plane tickets—a decision that will determine the rest of their lives. 

6. The last entry in this list is a book I haven’t yet read, A Little Hope by Ethan Joella. This novel is due for publication on November 16, 2021, and I have just ordered it as my November choice from Book of the Month. I chose it after seeing this description:

stories expand out toward a dozen other members of the community, who are connected to the Tylers in various ways, and who are struggling with their own futures and challenges. These are ordinary lives where nothing too dramatic happens in term[s] of plot. But the intrigue comes from how the characters handle their universal hopes and tragedies, and how they reveal so much about the human spirit—within themselves and ourselves.

7 Character-Driven Novels for Fans of Olive Kitteridge

This 6 Degrees of Separation exercise has yielded a list of 7 novels, all quite different from each other but all dealing with the delicious messiness of being human: “Messy, messy life, full of friendship, love, joy but sorrows too. All making us the people we are.”

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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