Women inform the following debuts, which are as various in genre and subject as the main characters they feature. From fiercely determined to quietly striving, the ladies filling these pages reward readers’ attention as they forge and define their lives.
In the wistful The Atomic Weight of Love (Algonquin. May 2016. ISBN 9781616204846. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616206116), Elizabeth J. Church traces the life of Meridian Wallace from young girl and star student to wife and, finally, to her true self. The story spans pre–World War II to the 1980s as Meridian makes the hard bargain so many of her cohorts made: to deny her own desires and goals for the career and wishes of her husband. Through smooth prose and a dimensional main character, Church measures what her heroine loses when she turns down a Cornell graduate program and what she finds in an affair with a questing Vietnam vet. Meridian’s self-realization soon inspires her to contribute greatly to the girls of her community, launching them on their own chosen paths.
The fictional memoir of Mary Davidson, Rush Oh! (Little, Brown. Mar. 2016. ISBN 9780316261548. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316261524), is told 30 years after a 19-year-old Mary meets the enigmatic John Beck, a mysterious new hire on her father’s whaling crew. Her account details a fateful Australian season as the team works—intriguingly alongside killer whales—to bring down their massive prey. Mary awakens to love, while her sister turns up her nose at societal strictures, and their world shows its first signs of coming unraveled. Decades later, Mary shares the fates of herself and her family as she looks back to her time with John with bittersweet frustration. Shirley Barrett enlivens her novel with a wonderfully conceived central character and lavish detail—some gory, some glorious.
Claire Flannery lives in London with boyfriend Luke, drinks far too much, and tries to figure out her life in Not Working (Dial. May 2016. ISBN 9780812988819. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780812988826). Lisa Owens’s breezy, observant debut is aptly named since many things are not working for twentysomething Claire. She quit her job in an effort to decide what she really wants to do, only to discover that she doesn’t want to do much at all. Meanwhile, everyone around her seems to be busy getting on with their lives—even her grandmother has trouble fitting Claire into her active schedule. Claire presents her running commentary on herself and others in tiny vignettes—moments on the tube, time with Luke, and a dark rift with her mother. Encounters and reflections range from laugh-out-loud funny to cringe inducing to flat out sad.
Alexandra Oliva evokes the horror and isolation of a postapocalyptic world, centering on Zoo, a participant in the wilderness reality show In the Dark, a mix of the television program Survivor and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. When something terrible happens outside of the production, the contestants are completely ignorant, having been cut off from society. Accustomed to the staged violence during the broadcast’s challenges, Zoo comes across the real-life destruction and assumes it’s just part of the elaborate set. Bound by the rules of the game and thinking every dead body is a prop and other survivors are all part of the illusion, her dawning realization is harrowing. The Last One (Ballantine. Jul. 2016. ISBN 9781101965085. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781101965092) is a creepy and compelling ride.
Nicole Dennis-Benn takes readers into the darkness of a deeply dysfunctional family in Here Comes the Sun (Liveright: Norton. Jul. 2016. ISBN 9781631491764. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631491771). Margot turns tricks to keep her sister Thandi in an expensive private school, while their mother, Delores, sells trinkets to do the same. Their supposed unified purpose does little to unite them, and fueled by various ambitions, the family members sell one another out for what they most want in a plot that unspools in a swift domino-fall of ugly choices. Set in Jamaica, where the multiple reverberations of colonial inheritance still hold sway, Dennis-Benn’s debut transports readers to the rundown sleepy edge of a resort town through a mix of rhythmic patois and a brilliantly rendered landscape.
One of 2015’s most successful debuts, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (Riverhead. Jul. 2016. ISBN 9781594634024. pap. $16; ebk ISBN 9780698185395) gained new attention this year owing to the film adaptation starring Emily Blunt as the out-of-control alcoholic Rachel. While voyeuristically watching the daily routines of another woman, Rachel sees something she was not supposed to from her seat on the train. Rachel thinks Megan Hipwell has the life she could have had before her ex-husband left her and married Anna. Nothing is as Rachel thinks it is, however, when Megan disappears. Rachel becomes involved in the case, and somehow Anna has a key role to play. As the tense thriller unfolds, husbands and lovers, motivations and memories collide in a sinister brew.