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book review

Villa America
By Liza Klaussmann, Bond Street Books, 416 pages, $32

Liza Klaussmann has a fabulous literary pedigree: She's the great-great-great-granddaughter of Herman Melville. Villa America, her second novel, is based on the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy, a wealthy American couple who moved to the south of France in the 1920s and changed the face of summer forever – seriously; they introduced the concept of sunbathing on the beach to the French Riviera. They also had a home in Cap d'Antibes that would host a cornucopia of famous artists from the so-called "Lost Generation," including Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The lives of the couple who inspired the Fitzgerald novel Tender Is the Night are at once charmed and marked by tragedy, and all the luscious details are revealed here with fetching prose and pacing that never feels burdened by the responsibility that comes with writing about true events. Klaussmann is a nimble, clever writer who has managed to deliver a weighty story about art, love and the terrible fragility of dreams.

Who Do You Love
By Jennifer Weiner, Atria Books, 381 pages, $32

Jennifer Weiner doesn't need to prove she's a writer with uncanny insight into the inner workings of the human soul and a talent with plot, no matter how complex, that makes turning the pages of one of her novels an unavoidable compulsion – but she's done it yet again with her latest, Who Do You Love. Since meeting as eight-year-olds in a hospital emergency room, Rachel Blum and Andy Landis – both damaged in ways that go beyond skin deep – have been star-crossed to meet over and over as they journey through life. Sometimes when they meet their bond deepens; other times, it stretches to the breaking point. Shakespeare was right: The course of true love never did run smooth, and this novel paints a wonderful picture of a circuitous path toward destiny and redemption. There's something a little magical about this book. It will cause you to think about love and life in unexpected ways, and will likely also cause you to feel grateful for the people you love, and those who love you – sometimes against all odds.

Days of Awe
By Lauren Fox, Knopf, 256 pages, $32.49

Once upon a time, schoolteacher Isabel Moore was a married and adored mother of one with a best friend she knew better than anyone. But in the course of a year her best friend becomes unknowable before dying in a car accident, her husband moves out and her daughter becomes a sulky insomniac who barely speaks to her. Lauren Fox (Friends Like Us, Still Life With Husband) is an author with a talent for metaphors so skillful and true it's necessary to stop reading from time to time in order to fully absorb them. (Having an 11-year-old daughter and letting go of her in small increments "is like pining over the college boyfriend who dumped you;" Josie's car "skidded across the slick road like a can of soup rolling across a supermarket aisle;" the hours spent in a divorce support group are "a broken dam.") Here, Fox delivers a story about all the things that keep us awake at night: marriage, parenthood, friendship, bereavement, workplace rivalries, aging parents, cultural identity, starting over. And yet with all it encompasses, this book never falters once. The pace is brisk, the suspense high, the heartache intense and the ending so authentic you'll want to turn back to page one and start all over, just so you can experience it again. Kind of like real life.

Maybe in Another Life
By Taylor Jenkins Reid, Washington Square Press, 333 pages, $21

Yes, the Sliding Doors plot has been done before– in fact, this isn't the first time I've reviewed a book based on that very trope in this space. And yet I believe the idea is one that doesn't get tired. Who hasn't spent time wondering what if, ruminating over the path not taken, obsessing over the idea of getting a do-over? In Taylor Jenkins Reid's third novel, 29-year-old Hannah Martin is standing at yet another fork in the road in the midst of a bohemian life that has proven unsatisfying thus far. She's moved from city to city, never putting down roots, and that's always been fine – until an ill-advised relationship breaks her heart and shakes her faith in her judgment and morality. Although she's not quite sure whether it's still home, she heads back to where she was born: Los Angeles. There, she takes up residence in her best friend's guest bedroom and is faced with a seemingly innocuous choice one night: Should she go home with the high school boyfriend she met up with at a bar, or go back to her guest room alone? From here, the chapters alternate between the results and ramifications of each choice, as Hannah essentially leads two lives. The writing is crisp, the story lively and the voice trademark Jenkins Reid: engaging, friendly, wise. Ultimately, this novel shows that although it's impossible to know for sure whether any choice can definitively be the right one, it's about finding a way to live with yourself, no matter which direction life leads you in.

Bennington Girls Are Easy
By Charlotte Silver, Random House, 272 pages, $28.95

Cassandra Puffin and Sylvie Furst have been best friends for years: "Right from the beginning, in high school, theirs was a fast, fiery friendship, a brief, beautiful phenomenon particular to the golden-green wilds of adolescence." After graduating from Bennington, an exclusive liberal-arts college straight out of a Salinger novel and "founded in the year 1932 as a suitable refuge for the wayward daughters of good families," Sylvie moves to New York. Cassandra eventually follows after making a series of her own mistakes. Female friendship, privilege and the gorgeous ridiculousness of youth – a ridiculousness that, sadly, must eventually give way to the mundanities of real life – are explored in a novel full of delectable bon mots, dark humour and riveting scenes documenting the rebellious social and sexual exploits of twentysomething dilettantes. It will make you think about how friendship can sometimes feel a lot like romantic love: Heartbreaking when it falls apart, forever marked on your soul and, like all great affairs of the heart, never really over. It will also make you laugh, cringe and possibly cry as you remember the sins and redemptions of your own misspent youth. (Or, you might wish to have spent more time misspending your youth.) Languid but still attention-grabbing, Bennington Girls Are Easy is the perfect book for a summer afternoon at the cottage. Even better if you have friends around to read the best lines aloud to.

Come Away With Me
By Karma Brown, Mira Books, 344 pages, $17.95

Life is unpredictable. Anything can happen to anyone, at any time. These are facts we must all try to avoid, lest we wrap ourselves in cotton batting and refuse to leave the house, and these are facts that Canadian journalist Karma Brown fearlessly explores in her debut novel. At the outset of Come Away With Me, Tegan Lawson is in the precarious position of having it all: the happy marriage to the handsome husband, the satisfying job, the baby on the way. But in an instant, on a patch of black ice, her future is taken away. She loses both her unborn child and all hope of becoming pregnant again, ever. Her grief is a black thing that plunges her into a place filled with raw anger and sadness so profound she can't see her way through it. Then her husband, Gabe, whom she blames for the accident, suggests they attempt to heal themselves by travelling to some of the places they've always dreamed of, locales written on a collection of slips of paper they keep in their "Spontaneity Jar," now hidden on a shelf in a closet. The couple embark on an Eat, Pray, Love-style journey toward self-discovery – and hopefully, forgiveness. Brown meticulously guides the reader toward an ending that reveals a surprise that is both desolate and beautiful. Ultimately, the conclusion opens the door to recovery when everything, absolutely everything, has been lost except one thing: the courage that comes from hitting bottom and having nowhere to go but up.