Best fiction 2004

RECOMMENDED FICTION
ALOFT, by Chang-rae Lee, Riverhead, $24.95

Up in the sky, flying his little plane, narrator Jerry Battle can't see anyone's face. It's a box-seat for a man who finds it easiest to appreciate people - particularly family - when gazing down on them from a distance of 3,000 feet. The novel opens with Battle's Godlike pronouncement: "Everything looks perfect to me," and for the next 350 pages he talks on and on in a voice that's maddeningly self-absorbed, wonderfully witty, constantly conflicted, and ultimately redeemed. He doesn't know why his girlfriend walked out after 20 years, why his son is losing his business, or why his daughter won't get medical treatment for cancer. Jerry thinks he'd be happy to keep soaring above all these messy and irreconcilable complications of family relationships, relying on what his daughter calls his "preternatural lazy-heartedness." But despite his best efforts, what he refers to as "the Real" keeps calling him back down to Earth. (Full review March 9)

GILEAD, by Marilynne Robinson, FSG, $23

For a country dazzled by literary and military pyrotechnics, this quiet novel couldn't be less compatible with the times - or more essential. The narrator is a 77-year-old preacher, in Gilead, Iowa, who's been told he has only a few months to live. Writing to the 6-year-old son he will leave behind, he presents a mixture of wry commentary on the day, heartfelt reflections on God, and memories of his grandfather who fought alongside abolition terrorist John Brown. Never morbid or sanctimonious, these profound pages demonstrate what fine guidance he must have given over the course of 2,250 sermons. (Nov. 30)

THE MASTER, by Colm Tóibín, Scriber, $25

This biographical novel reflects all the brilliance and challenge of Henry James's work, sweeping through the master's life and mind with a scope that's both broad and precise. Tóibín narrates in the omniscient third person, focused on James's perspective, a kind of "What Henry Knew." The novel opens on the disastrous theatrical debut of "Guy Domville," which sent James into years of anxious speculation about his life and craft. As the story moves through James's relationships with family and friends, we see the same tension between his attraction to people and his desperate need to withhold himself. Tóibín seems to have memorized the voluminous journals, letters, and published works, allowing him to re-create conversations and interior monologues with remarkable fidelity. It's an audacious attempt that manages to beat the master at his own game, while avoiding the perils of parody or sycophancy. The result is a beautiful, haunting portrayal. (May 25)

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL, by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, $27.95

The prospect of having to read an 800-page novel billed as "Harry Potter for adults" was enough to make this weary book critic pine for an invisibility cloak. But this witty debut is no Harry Potter knockoff. It's altogether original - far closer to Dickens than Rowling. Clarke has concocted a thoroughly enchanting story of the early 19th century when Gilbert Norrell tried to bring "practical magic" back to England. Ominous and imperious, yet helpless and fretful, Mr. Norrell hopes to show how magic can help in the war against France. But he's obsessed with stamping out charlatans and cornering the market on magic books. When he realizes he needs a partner to promote his work, he reluctantly takes on young Jonathan Strange, but he doesn't trust his dashing new partner until he must - when all of England is threatened. Don't worry if fantasy isn't your thing; this is irresistible. (Aug. 31)

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, $26

With a seamless blend of autobiography, history, and speculation, Roth imagines that Charles Lindbergh ran against Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1940. Drawing on Lindbergh's writings and speeches, Roth creates a campaign for the aviation hero centered on his determination to keep America out of Europe's war. But Roth's real target isn't an anti-Semitic aviation hero who died 30 years ago. It's an electorate he sees as dazzled by attractive faces and moved by simple slogans. Told from the point of view of an adult looking back on himself as a boy, the result is a cautionary story in the tradition of "The Handmaid's Tale," a stunning work of political extrapolation about a triumvirate of hate, ignorance, and paranoia that shreds decency and overruns liberty. (Sept. 28)

OTHER NOTEWORTHY FICTION
APPRENTICE TO THE FLOWER POET, by Debra Weinstein, Random House, $23.95

Writing satire about the poetry world is like shooting similes in a barrel. Annabelle, a wide-eyed undergraduate at NYU, lands her dream job as an assistant to the legendary (and wholly fraudulent) Professor Z. A wickedly funny story about fatuous academics and the students who love them too much. (April 20)

BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS, by Louis De Bernières, Knopf, $25.95

This deeply rewarding work about the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire is both exotically remote and tragically relevant in our age of confident nation-building. As he did in his bestselling "Corelli's Mandolin," de Bernières roots his examination of the byzantine complexity of history in the life of a small town. (Aug. 24)

BUT COME YE BACK, by Beth Lordan, Morrow, $23.95

Lordan's novel records the affection between a man and woman who remain strikingly different over their 30-year marriage. Lyle has retired recently, and Mary has prevailed upon him to move to her childhood town in Ireland. Some of the chapters read like individual masterpieces, but they all work together beautifully as the tale of a couple learning to understand the depth of their love. (March 16)

THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI, by Andrew Greer, FSG, $23

This creepy novel tells the story of a man born with a 70-year-old body that ages backwards. The story comes to us as a love letter written by Max at the end of his life when he looks like a 12-year-old boy. The secret to Greer's success is his delightfully overwrought voice, luxuriating in Victorian conceits of self-pity, love, and confession. Greer sways precariously between parody and profundity in a way that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him. (Feb. 3)

THE DARLING, by Russell Banks, HarperCollins, $25.95

Hannah left her wealthy family in the 1960s to join a radical group of white youths who hope to bring about social revolution. In the 1970s, she flees from the FBI to Africa where she cares for a group of chimps and marries into the ruling class of Liberia just as that country begins one of the 20th century's most gruesome disasters. Absorbing, deadly serious. (Oct. 5)

THE EGYPTOLOGIST, by Arthur Phillips, Random House, $24.95

Presented as a collection of letters, telegrams, journals, drawings, scholarly analysis, and ancient (ribald) poems, this book opens like some long-sealed chamber of mysteries. Chief among these voices is Ralph Trilipush, a wildly vain professor of Egyptology at Harvard. His two-month expedition is a scathingly funny example of counting your mummies before they're unwrapped. (Sept. 7)

AN EVENING OF LONG GOODBYES, by Paul Murray, Random House, $24.95

Between his incurable laziness and his infuriating superiority, it's hard to admire Charles. He's a double-wrapped egotist, protected by the walls of his mother's mansion and by an impenetrable sense of privilege. Some of the best scenes of this funny novel focus on the inane working world that Charles plunges into, hoping to find a job so he can save his sister and protect his crumbling castle from foreclosure. (Aug. 3)

EVENTIDE, by Kent Haruf, Knopf, $24.95

This sequel to "Plainsong" rotates through the lives of several families in Holt, Colo. At the center are the McPheron brothers, crusty ranchers trying to keep stiff upper lips as they help Victoria pack for college. They can't imagine life without her. This hardscrabble story kicks up a dust cloud of melancholy that will sting even the most hardened reader's eyes. (May 4)

THE FALLS, by Joyce Carol Oates, Ecco, $26.95

The morning after Ariah's disastrous wedding night, her new husband throws himself into Niagara Falls. Ariah survives the trauma, remarries, and raises a family, but none of them can escape the draw of the water or the secrets of the past. Relentless. (Sept. 14)

FOUR SOULS, by Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins, $23.95

Another tragic-comedy from Erdrich about physical and spiritual recovery in all its agony and beauty. Fleur Pillager is the last survivor of a line of medicine women. Estranged from her only daughter and deeply embittered, she sets out on a mission to kill a wealthy businessman who swindled her family out of their land. Instead, she marries him. (June 29)

HUMAN CAPITAL, by Stephen Amidon, FSG, $24

Amidon has a keen eye for the distinctive details of upper- middle- and lower-class life, but he's even more insightful about the commonality among these people: Money anxieties gnaw at them all, and teenagers baffle them equally. The story involves a confluence of disasters involving drunk driving, hedge funds, and private school politics. A smart literary novel dressed as a thriller. (Oct. 12)

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, by Karen Joy Fowler, Putnam, $23.95

Fowler's charming story revolves around the monthly meetings of six people - five women and one man - who gather to discuss Jane Austen's domestic romances. You don't have to know Austen's work to enjoy it, but if you've read them, you'll catch all kinds of witty parallels with the lives of these modern fans. (April 27)

THE LAST CROSSING, by Guy Vanderhaeghe, Atlantic, $24

An English industrialist discovers that his youngest son has disappeared somewhere in the American West while following a charlatan who planned to convert Indians. To find him, he dispatches his remaining two sons, one a brash warrior, the other a sensitive artist. During a search that covers thousands of miles, the brothers discover far more about each other than they ever wanted to know. A bracing mixture of violence and spiritual yearning. (Feb. 17).

THE LINE OF BEAUTY, by Alan Hollinghurst, Bloomsbury, $24.95

In 1983, Nick Guest, a graduate student pursuing a PhD on Henry James, moves in with a family of wealthy conservatives in London. The parents have no objection to Nick's homosexuality, particularly if it remains entirely out of sight, but Nick is quickly drawn into a scene of sexuality and drugs that ruins his life and kills his friends. Though an exquisitely written book, it contains scenes that some readers will find offensive. Booker Prize winner. (Oct. 26)

PRINCE EDWARD, by Dennis McFarland, Holt, $25

The people of Prince Edward, Va., decided to close their public schools rather than obey an order to desegregate them. For 10-year-old Ben, whose best friend is black, this poses a quandary he can't unravel. Profound insight into adolescence and the social history of America. (May 11)

SOMEONE TO RUN WITH, by David Grossman, FSG, $24

Assaf, 16, is enduring a dull summer job in Jerusalem's sanitation department when a lost dog draws him into a harrowing search for his true love. Meanwhile, the dog's owner, a young woman living on the streets, is on a dark adventure of her own, struggling to save a friend from drug addiction. A tender, witty story of first love that should appeal to smart teens and sensitive adults. (Jan. 13)

THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL, by Yasmina Khadra, Doubleday, $18.95

Mohsen and his wife came from prosperous families and were looking forward to interesting careers in government. But the Taliban's zeal and a long conflict with the Soviets have scorched away those hopes. An impressionistic, frightening story about the horrors of poverty and religious fanaticism. (Feb. 10)

VOYAGEURS, by Margaret Elphinstone, Canongate, $24

A deeply thoughtful historical novel about a young Quaker from England who sets out to find his sister in the Canadian wilderness during the War of 1812. (Aug. 17)

WAR TRASH, by Ha Jin, Pantheon, $25

Sent into Korea by the Chinese with orders not to be taken alive, Yuan is quickly captured and then finds himself struggling to survive for years in American prison camps where Nationalists and Communists vie violently for hearts and minds. Told in a quiet voice that makes the tale even more moving. (Oct. 12)

WATERBORNE, by Bruce Murkoff, Knopf, $25

A young engineer has spent the past four years in shock since the death of his son. A new romance and an assignment to oversee construction of the Hoover Dam rouse him, but a brutal laborer could ruin it all. Murkoff pools a reservoir of suspense that threatens to burst through the covers of this book. (Feb. 24)

THE WORK OF WOLVES, by Kent Meyers, Harcourt, $24

Carson is a respected horse trainer, a cool young man with boundless love for his animals. Trouble starts when Magnus, the town's richest man, hires him to teach his wife to ride. He quickly grows jealous, cancels the lessons, and decides to punish Carson by torturing his own horses. Enlisting the help of a German exchange student and a native American, Carson must devise a way to fight back. (June 22)

YOU REMIND ME OF ME, by Dan Chaon, Ballantine, $24.95

The disconnected lives of two brothers, one given away for adoption at birth, the other mauled by a dog at the age of 6. Years later, when their mother dies, the kept brother goes looking for his sibling, hoping he'll finally find a friend. Deeply moving. (June 8)

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