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  • Belle Brett

Armchair Travel: Five 2019 Novels Set in Other Places and Times

Pack your bags. It’s summer, and it’s the longest day, when your thoughts may turn not only to where you will vacation but also to what you will read. Personally, I love books that whisk me away to exotic places without having to shell out the airfare. (My own novel, Gina in the Floating World, is set in 1981 Japan.) Whether or not you plan to travel anywhere, these five sense-filled novels, all published in 2019 (presented in order of publication date), will transport you across the world and back in time to: 1930s Paris, 1950s Italy, 2000s Greece, 1914 Russia, and 1950s Iran. Three are debut novels. Interestingly, all cover several time periods in the course of telling their respective stories, and all tell tales of love. I confess that except for The Age of Light and The Greek Persuasion, the others are works of progress on my nightstand. Thus, the following are less reviews than they are brief summaries to tickle your curiosity. I look forward to completing my reading itinerary over the coming months and adding to it.

PARIS: The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (Little Brown and Company).

Scharer’s book combines Paris, art, and love in a beautifully told and sensuous story of the real-life photographer Lee Miller and her tempestuous relationship with her mentor, the charismatic Surrealist Man Ray. Miller, a former Vogue model, arrives in Paris in 1929 determined to forge her own career and convinces Ray to take her on as his assistant. In that capacity she develops her own creative voice as well as discovering new photographic techniques while living a somewhat Bohemian and decadent lifestyle with Ray. As a contrast, the novel interweaves in Miller’s later life as a war-time photojournalist and her final years on an English country farm where she cooks and gardens so that we see the full spectrum of this accomplished, complex woman.

ITALY: Leading Men by Christopher Castellani (Viking).

Castellani’s fourth book is a departure from his sweet, earlier trilogy. Like The Age of Light, this ambitious novel focuses on the lives of people with name recognition--in this case, Tennessee Williams and his lover, Frank Merlo. Williams and Merlo, manager of Williams’ daily affairs and inspiration for his greatest creative period, meet the imaginary Anja, a young Swedish actress, on the Italian Riviera in the summer of 1953. Anja is portrayed as a life-long friend of Merlo, whom she sees ten years later as he is dying from lung cancer and hoping for a visit from Williams. This largely character-driven novel includes a short, unpublished play about Merlo (also made up) that Williams gives to Anja, creating a dilemma as to whether it should be shared with the world.

GREECE: The Greek Persuasion by Kimberly Robeson (She Writes Press).

Robeson’s debut novel takes us on a sun-splashed search for self-acceptance and love. Unable to let go of the Greek myth that each person has a perfect other half out there, 31-year old college teacher Thair, heartbroken by the end of a relationship that wasn’t working, spends time on a Greek island with its happy memories of visits to her grandmother. There, she begins to explore her family history by writing the stories of this proud and determined woman; her daughter, Thair’s mother, who marries an American and Immigrates to the USA; and then herself, told in the third person to provide some distance, but interspersed with a present tense account of her life. We learn of her deep, but challenging relationships with two very different people, a man and a woman, who want different things from her. Although the novel takes place in several locations, the heart of the story is Thair’s ancestral home, the place where Thair will find herself.

RUSSIA: A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum (Grand Central Publishing).

Although Barenbaum’s sweeping debut novel begins briefly in 2000 Philadelphia, its real start is 1914 Russia in a Jewish community beset with violence from the czarist regime, on the eve of war with Germany. Headstrong Miri is offered the chance to become one of Russia’s first female surgeons while her physicist brother Vanya works feverishly to update Einstein’s theory of relativity before the future great scientist (or someone else) does so. The success of his work (and an offer of a post at Harvard) hinges on being present during an upcoming solar eclipse. But war breaks out. When both Vanya and Miri’s fiance enlist in the army for different reasons, Miri escapes her town, risks her life to find the two, and becomes enmeshed in a passionate romance with a soldier.

IRAN: The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali (Gallery Books).

In Kamali’s second novel, we toggle back and forth between Iran in 1953 and present=day US. In this story of lost love, Roya, a bookish teenager whose more liberated parents encourage her studies, recalls her slowly brewing romance with Bahman, a smart and political boy she meets in the local stationery shop, which also sells poetry and novels in translation. When Bahman declares his marital intentions to Roya but then fails to show up at the appointed time in the town square where a protest erupts, Roya is left wondering what happened. Sixty years later, Roya, now living in the USA with her husband Walter, locates Bahman in a nursing home and visits him to get some answers. Set at a time of protests among the supporters of the democratic regime, the Shah, and the communists, The Stationery Shop immerses us in the sounds, smells and tastes of a country with an ancient history that has been through many transformations.

Happy reading? Where does your nightstand take you?

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