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Debut Novels Reveal the Fragility of Female Bonds


THE LIGHTNESS
By Emily Temple
272 pp. Morrow/HarperCollins. $26.99.

It’s only right for a book that probes the inner reaches of consciousness to be set in the mountains, where the air is thin and the body is lighter. Temple’s novel follows Olivia, a 15-year-old whose father, an elusive Buddhist, went missing a year ago. She enrolls in a summer camp for troubled teenagers at the Levitation Center, his last known location, where it’s rumored people have successfully done what the name suggests. There she forms an alliance with a cluster of youths determined to levitate by the end of the summer — as well as a 20-something gardener who harbors suspicious entanglements with them. It’s a teen thriller in the vein of the ’90s horror movie “The Craft,” only instead of a Los Angeles high school this one is set at what Olivia calls “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.” But it’s also a beautiful meditation on meditation, with readings of sacred texts and light Buddhist history, populated with girls who refuse to act the way they’re expected to; who have too much passion, too many feelings and nowhere to put them; who are on the cusp of adulthood, “waking up to the true nature of things,” fragile as they are smart and naïve as they are reckless. They yearn to know how they can shape their own reality even as they’re learning (as Olivia imagines her father would say) that “reality is a construct, consciousness an illusion.” Friendships, too, prove to be illusions, as that between the girls fractures and frays, exposing the aching need at the center of each individual’s ambitions. This book — frequently hilarious, and thoughtful throughout — also transcends expectations at its end.

THEY SAY SARAH
By Pauline Delabroy-Allard
Translated by Adriana Hunter
165 pp. Other Press. Paper, $15.99.

In a story whose experimental structure is as slippery as its title, the unnamed narrator switches from first to second person, addressing either the reader or, at other times, her violent, emotionally inconsistent yet hungry and irresistible lover, the titular Sarah. The two meet at a New Year’s Eve party, where at first the narrator finds Sarah abrasive; but then, as they are talking, the narrator spills a glass of red wine, foreshadowing spilled blood. Marks left forever. Mistakes that can’t be undone. The two meet again the following week.

Sarah plays classical violin; the narrator is a 30-something teacher raising a daughter alone after the girl’s father has abandoned them. Nominated for France’s Prix Goncourt, the brief book is split into two parts. Repetition and backward movement mirror the inertia and disorientation of grief, of love and abuse (what the narrator terms “repetitive trauma syndrome”), of any kind of upheaval in your life, when the ground has disappeared, leaving you suspended in a viscous fluid of uncertainty.

The hyperbolic emotion of this novel sometimes tips into cliché, but Delabroy-Allard insists on holding space for an unfiltered expression of pain. Melodramatic expressions are interspersed with straightforward pieces of wisdom like, “You have to get through the nights and be fulfilled during the day.” Hunter’s translation highlights the inertia and cycling of the absolutist thought patterns of love, with simple language that moves out of the way of its subject. This poetic and mystifying debut draws blood.

THE MARGOT AFFAIR
By Sanaë Lemoine
327 pp. Hogarth. $27.

Betrayal and desire fuel the story of Margot, the secret daughter of a 20-year affair between a French politician and a famous actress. Margot is 17 and longing for more time with her father, who is frequently absent while maintaining another family in public. She’s lunching at a sidewalk cafe with her mother when they spot her father’s wife across the street. Margot has never seen the woman before, and becomes consumed with a need to unite the two halves of her father’s life. She spies an opportunity when she meets a famous journalist at an after-party for one of her mother’s shows. This sets in motion a series of events that fractures her family further, and sheds light on unsettling similarities between Margot and her parents, as well as the intergenerational patterns at work in their lives. “Were we shaped by the spaces in which we existed?” she asks.

It’s impossible not to love Margot’s delicate mixture of maturity and naïveté; her probing curiosity, as much for culture as for other people; and her tender, minute examinations of inner, and interpersonal, space. She extends every inch of understanding to adults in her orbit, sometimes to degrees of near-superhuman compassion. Lemoine’s descriptions are embroidered and sensory, delivering exquisite details such as the father’s “warm, fragile skin … like touching the hands of an old woman.” She has a nose for the alimentary, and an eye for body language. This is a startling, affecting first book by an author who is confident in her craft, who knows that a loving portrait includes flaws.

IT IS WOOD, IT IS STONE
By Gabriella Burnham
214 pp. One World. $26.

Linda’s husband, Dennis, has been offered a prestigious temporary teaching position at the University of São Paulo, while Linda, adrift in her writing after spending a year caring for her dying father, has little idea what she’ll do there. Though she addresses Dennis in her narration, the substance of Burnham’s artful tapestry of a novel — to be published in July — concerns Linda’s relationships with other women. Marta, a black woman appointed by the university as the couple’s maid, brings Linda into direct confrontation with her own privilege as an affluent white woman abroad. Soon Linda becomes infatuated with Celia, a mysterious artist she meets in a bar, and finds in their simmering romance an outlet for her grief, artistic frustration and fears of inadequacy in her marriage to an overachiever. The nested stories of Marta and Celia — delivered as notes to epic phone conversations, and intimate monologues in the kitchen — capture the oral systems of information-sharing and storytelling passed among women throughout history.

Burnham is a dual citizen of the United States and Brazil, and her descriptions of São Paulo’s neighborhoods, the rural town of Atibaia and the beaches of Trindade bring the reader into sensory contact with the setting. As well, her descriptions of the domestic sphere show us the subtle power dynamics at play there. Clear and intricate prose delivers such fresh phrases as “slick like a peeled plum boiled in sugar water.” This is a remarkable story of secrecy, discovery and self-expression, delivered by a skillful observer.



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