Miles Adler-Rich, the likable teen narrator of Mona Simpson’s involving new novel Casebook (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) reminds me a bit of Harriet the Spy as he eavesdrops on the adults in his life, especially his mother Irene, “pretty for a mathematician.” Of course, he finds out more than he really wants to know, beginning with his parents’ divorce and their worries over him and his younger twin sisters. But Miles can’t stop spying, and with the help of his best friend Hector, graduates from rigging walkie-talkies and listening at open windows to tapping phones and rifling drawers. Their detective work intensifies when Irene becomes involved with the enigmatic Eli Lee, whose suspicious behavior leads Miles and Hector to a real private eye for investigative help. They also collaborate on a comic book, casting Eli as the chief villain and giving themselves superpowers to rescue incorrigible pets.
Framed as a memoir written by Miles in early 20s and footnoted by Hector, Casebook focuses on their middle and high school years in Santa Monica, the boys’ misadventures and the mystery of Eli. The conceit works for the most part; Simpson has an eye for the trenchant detail and knows her way around family dysfunction. The pacing’s uneven, and the supporting cast shadowy, but Miles’ perceptions ring true. Often funny, sometimes sad, Casebook makes for sweet dramedy.
Nickolas Butler’s first novel Shotgun Lovesongs (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover) is itself a love song to small-town America and long friendships. It’s an ensemble piece, with the narrative fluidly moving back and forth in time and among five friends who grew up together in the Wisconsin farming community of Little Wing. Now in their early 30s, they’re facing that second coming-of-age where they’re starting to second-guess past choices and wondering what comes next. Hank runs his family farm with quiet competence and is a happily married husband and father. His wife Beth knows her high school sweetheart is a good man but a small piece of her heart still belongs to Leland, Hank’s best buddy who has found fame as an indie rocker. Despite his wandering, Lee keeps returning to Little Wing. Kip, a successful Chicago broker, is also back, ready to develop the closed mill into a commercial enterprise. Another friend, Ronny, was a rodeo cowboy before drink and a disabling accident sent him home to Little Wing, where his old pals can keep an eye on him at the VFW.
There are four weddings in the book, but the only funeral is for the lost dreams and missed opportunities among the group. Butler writes with lyric ease, but his characters are carrying around an awful lot of nostalgia to be so young. They may think it’s the Big Chill, but it’s really just an early frost.
Julia Glass’s new novel And the Dark Sacred Night (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) takes its title from Louis Armstrong’s song “What a Wonderful World.” It’s appropriate — the world Glass’s sympathetic characters inhabit is richly realized, full of both heartbreak and joy. Unemployed art historian Kit Noonan’s midlife search for his biological father animates the story, but he’s the least interesting of the main characters. The most inexplicable is his mother Daphne, who in this day and age still refuses to divulge the name of his father to Kit, although readers are soon privy to her youthful affair at a summer music camp with a character from Glass’s award-winning 2002 novel Three Junes.
Kit’s search for his father leads him first to Jasper, his former stepfather, a Vermont outdoorsman who eventually points him to Lucinda Burns, glimpsed in Three Junes. Lucinda, the patrician wife of a New England senator, is the heart of the book. As Kit’s paternal grandmother, she’s long been aware of his relationship to her family and the chance to finally acknowledge him allows her to reconcile past and present. It’s not necessary to have read Three Junes to appreciate this one, although its readers also will welcome the return of bookseller Fenno McLeod and the chance to catch up with him and his partner Walter. If only Kit was as faceted as his father . . .
Addie Lockwood’s unexpected pregnancy is just the first surprise in Kim Church’s Byrd (Dzanc Books, paperback ARC), a beautifully written first novel about love, choice and chance. Growing up in a small North Carolina town in the 1980s, bookish Addie finds a soulmate in musician Roland Rhodes. They go their separate ways after high school, pursuing their own dreams with mixed results. When they briefly meet again in their early 30s, Addie becomes pregnant. She decides to have the baby — Byrd — and give him up for adoption without telling Roland. The secret will reveberate through their lives and those close to them.
Church tells her story, past and present, through vignettes, longer set pieces and several letters. The narrative seems a bit disjointed at first, but then Church’s seductive prose takes hold and doesn’t let go.