Big SwissJen Beagin
Scribner, 2023, $27
With Big Swiss, Jen Beagin leaves behind Mona, the house-cleaning protagonist of her first two novels, Pretend I'm Dead and Vacuum in the Dark, in favor of Greta, a worthy and no less loveable successor to Mona. Whereas the latter snooped around her clients' homes and through their belongings, Greta does a different kind of snooping: She transcribes therapy sessions for a sex coach who calls himself Om. This gives Greta direct access to the innermost thoughts and secrets of Om's patients and also provides Beagin—the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award for fiction—with an innovative narrative device, wherein the reader is made privy to the transcripts of the sessions as Greta types them up.
Greta is discreet with these secrets for the most part—she needs the work and does not want to jeopardize her gig by blabbing—but she finds herself fixating on the title character, a much younger, married gynecologist who, oddly and tantalizingly, has never had an orgasm. Greta nicknames her Big Swiss, because she is originally from Switzerland. She regularly creates such signifiers for Om's patients, whose true identities are withheld from her. But the city of Hudson, where the story takes place, is a very small place, and it never takes long for Greta to match up Om's ostensibly anonymous clients with their real-life counterparts. As soon as she overhears her distinctive voice, with its trace of a Swiss accent, at the dog park, Greta IDs her new acquaintance, Flavia, as the Big Swiss of Om's sessions, the object of her fantasies.
The two women become friends and more, and much of the book's comic aspects revolve around Greta's efforts to pretend she does not know all that she knows about Flavia as they embark on a torrid affair. Inappropriate relationships are de rigueur in Beagin's fictional worlds, but rather than being put off by Greta's gross invasion of Flavia's privacy, the reader is pulled in by the excitement and drama of the relationship that ensues between them. They garner our sympathies even after they have shown their willingness—indeed, their willful eagerness—to violate their own integrity and the thin veneer of a social contract intended to keep all hell from breaking loose. And without giving too much away, let's just say it does.
As in her previous novels, Beagin is highly attuned to class distinctions. At her best, Beagin is an acute social satirist, and now that she has lived in Hudson for a good number of years, she nails the quirks of this community-in-transition with recognizable tropes, including "Hudson was overflowing with people who'd successfully reinvented themselves" and "Like most people in Hudson, they were better looking than average and dressed like boutique farmers."
But Beagin digs deeper than the awful cliches about the gentrifying river town that everyone has already heard, coming up with original gems like, "She's heard Hudson described as a college town without a college, or summer camp for adults, but it seemed more like a small community of expats. Everyone behaved as if they'd been banished from their native country." That last bit had never occurred to me, but, bingo! Now I know why I feel at home here.
Beagin portrays a host of other colorful characters, including her old friend and current roommate, Sabine, with whom she shares an early 18th-century farmhouse, one of the few remaining in the region that has yet to be updated for the 21st century. The farmhouse plays host to a number of other colorful creatures, including dogs, bees, roosters, maggots, and a couple of miniature donkeys. (What is it about donkeys all of a sudden popping up everywhere, in movies, TV shows, and, now, in novels?)
Toward the end of Big Swiss, Om tells Greta, "If you stick around Hudson, you won't be able to enter a room without having weird, sometimes horrifying history with at least four different people." I can't speak to that personally, as I pretty much stick to myself. Besides, one can probably say the same about any small town. But after 323 pages filled with lively and incisive descriptions of my adopted hometown and its wild, albeit imaginary, goings-on, I trust Beagin as a most reliable (and witty) narrator much more so than I trust the gaggle of her mostly unreliable yet compelling fictional creations.
Jen Beagin will read and sign Big Swiss at Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson on February 10 at 7pm.
Campden Hill Books, 2022, $15
Readers who love to get swept away by an epic saga will be enthralled by the twists and turns encountered by the Kaplows, a Jewish-American family in the 20th century. The story begins with daughters, themselves elderly, pondering their mother's life; then we're back in 1927, when their parents, Isaac and Belle, happened to meet at Lindbergh's takeoff from Roosevelt Field. The Depression, World War II, McCarthyism, the mid-century art scene, and the Civil Rights era will deepen and ripen these open-minded, good-hearted New Yorkers leading examined, adventuresome lives in this well-told slice of life.
Reclaiming the Sacred: Healing Our Relationships With Ourselves and the WorldJeff Golden
Golden, 2022, $18
A Fulbright scholar, writer, teacher, and activist focused on animal rights and prison reform, Hudson Valley resident Golden pulls together three decades of meticulous, wide-ranging research, spiritual practice, and lived experience into this prescription for our current situation, starting with an overview of the science of happiness and an examination of our longstanding epidemic of toxic materialism before forging onward and offering measures we can take to get back to center, all of it clearly stated and refreshingly free of jargon. Reclaiming the Sacred has been selected as one of the best nonfiction books of 2022 by the Best Indie Book Award.
The Gods of Clown Alley: A MemoirTara O'Grady
Bookbaby, 2023, $14.99
Mother-daughter travel is a birthday tradition for singer-songwriter O'Grady, a Beacon resident, who frames this tale within one such trip to an Arizona spa in the wake of a deep depression. She side-treks into her dream life, an ongoing dialectic with the essence of Ernest Hemingway, and other trips with her Irish immigrant mom to take us with her on an often hilarious journey inward, back to bliss and conscious cocreation told with rock 'n' roll candor. O'Grady is impishly irreverent with a spot-on BS detector, making the revelations she experiences ring fresh and genuine.
Light Skin Gone to Waste: StoriesToni Ann Johnson
University of Georgia Press, 2022, $22.95
Award-winning author Johnson sets these intersecting tales in the Orange County town of Monroe of the 1960s. It's a provincial blue-collar burg where a Black family—psychologist Phillip Arrington, his daughter from a previous marriage, new wife (who will open an antiques store) and impending baby Maddie—relocates to buy property and put down upper-middle-class roots, playacting the American Dream. This apparent triumph looks quite different to young Maddie, however. She's one of the only Black kids in her school, a journey that would be tough enough without narcissists for parents.
Botticelli's Secret: The Lost Drawings and the Rediscovery of the RenaissanceJoseph Luzzi
W.W. Norton, 2022, $28.95
When the Medicis ruled Florence and Sandro Botticelli was a darling of the art scene, he was tasked with the impossibly high-stakes project of illustrating all 100 cantos of The Divine Comedy, only to fail and die broke and unknown. The masterworks he created in his attempt, missing for centuries, would stun the global art world upon their rediscovery in the 19th century. Bard professor and scholar of Italian culture Luzzi's take on the tale and the light it sheds on cultural discourse, Renaissance and recent, was named a New Yorker Best Book of 2022.
—Anne Pyburn Craig