I don’t know about you, but at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown in NYC, I really struggled with reading. I had just started the new Hilary Mantel book, and felt like I was slogging through mud trying to finish it. I kept checking how many more percent I had to go on my Kindle, and seriously considered abandoning it part of the way through to just lose myself in mindless Netflix. The more I read about peoples’ emotional response to the current global pandemic, I realised it was normal to not be able to concentrate. My body’s fight or flight response wanted to keep me alert for what was coming next — not very conducive to relaxing reading!
Even though I was finding it hard to get into reading, I was also craving getting lost in a good book, to give my brain a rest and an escape. I realized I was going to need to read slightly different kinds of books to my usual faves and discovered the best novels to read during quarantine are:
- Gripping and fast-paced
- Emotionally engaging
- Simple in their storyline and writing style
- Broken down into short chapters for easy dipping in and out of
- A happy ending! We need that right now.
With these criteria in mind, here are the books I’ve truly LOVED reading during lockdown…
My Dark Vanessa is a re-telling of Nabokov’s Lolita for the post-Me Too era, so trigger warning, expect some pretty graphic descriptions of underage sex. This powerful novel is told in chapters which alternate between Vanessa, our protagonist’s, teenage years when she enters into a relationship with her middle-aged English teacher, and her troubled adulthood as she struggles to process the fall-out from this relationship. It all sounds too grim for words (especially if you’re the mama to pre-teen girls as I am) but the story is told like a thriller, which allows you to maintain some emotional distance from events. My Dark Vanessa powerfully demonstrates how grooming can be experienced by a victim and how supporting characters in Vanessa’s life enable the abuse. My Dark Vanessa would be an amazing Book Club pick because there are so many layers of the two main characters to dig into. This one will stay with me for a long time!
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is soooo good that upon finishing it I instantly texted about five friends to recommend it, one of whom then blamed me for a lost nice of sleep as she stayed up past 3am to find out what happens! Set in the suburbs of a Georgia town, the author explains the concept in his introduction: “I wanted to pit dracula against my mom, and as you’ll see, it’s not a fair fight”. This is Steel Magnolias meets True Blood with a whole dollop of grisly, dark happenings and humour, and I honestly couldn’t believe this was written by a man, because the female lead character is so believable. I think this might be my fave book of the year so far. Run, don’t walk.
Writers & Lovers is probably the closest to my usual reading sweet spot, i.e. a novel about human relationships where nothing much really happens. It’s a beautiful choice though if you’re looking to get lost in a tender and painful story about an underdog heroine, Casey, who can’t seem to get her life on track, and especially after the death of her beloved mother. I usually loathe books about writing, because it’s super “navel-gazey” of authors, but this is the exception. I loved the descriptions of the two men Casey ultimately chooses between, and the happy ending means what could have been quite a melancholy book ends up being ultimately uplifting and hopeful.
All Adults Here is a really beautiful, gentle story about a Grandmother in upstate NY, Astrid, who is prompted by the sudden, violent death of an acquaintance, to take a look back at her parenting choices and how they have affected the lives of her three adult children. I love Emma Straub’s writing, which always feels so cosy, filled with descriptions of delicious food and quirkily eccentric characters. As a parent, we’re primed to feel responsible for the “damage” our parenting is doing to our children, and I loved that this book reflects on the fact that even with the best of intentions, our parenting style interacts with the individual characters of our children, to create unexpected outcomes. Side note: Emma Straub owns our FAVOURITE bookshop in Brooklyn, Books Are Magic, which you must, must visit when NYC has reopened, because it’s super-charming.
I usually steer pretty clear of romance because I don’t find it satisfying — it’s a bit like eating doughnuts for me. I like the first bite, but then find it too sweet and and cloying and then feel sick afterwards. In Five Years though was a good quarantine snack, as I kept seeing it recommended, and was ultimately swayed by the New York City setting (and gorgeous cover design!). In Five Years’s plot is based around the main character, Dannie, who in her late 20’s has everything she could possibly want: an amazing career, a Manhattan apartment, a lovely best friend and a wonderful fiancé. One night Dannie has a strange dream/magical premonition, where she sees herself in a whole other life, with a totally different man. The story then details how the events from her premonition eventually come true, but it’s a lot more entertaining than that! The character of Dannie’s best friend is not even slightly believable, but if you’re into “Rom Coms” (as chick-lit is known as these days) you’ll have a fun time with this book as it certainly sucks you in.
The Anti-Escapism Options
Not into escapism for your quarantine/lockdown reading? Here are two books which I read which definitely don’t fit the criteria of “fun” reads, but which I wanted to explore how they would make me feel before I decided, nope, I don’t want to lean too hard into pandemic fiction!
The End of October is a remarkable prescient novel about a global pandemic which was just released by the author of Going Clear, Lawrence Wright. It’s so remarkably on-the-nose that I had to stop several times to google whether changes had been made in the couple of weeks before it came out! I didn’t find the characters compelling, and think Wright is ultimately more at-home writing non-fiction, but it’s worth reading.
Severance by Ling Ma is a really beautifully-written yet disturbing book about a global pandemic (originating in China) which ultimately wipes out most of the world’s population. The main character moves through most of the book in a slightly dream-like way, missing what is happening around her until New York City totally collapses and she’s forced on the road to band together with others. I would have LOVED this book at another time, but the accuracy felt too dark for me and after reading this, I realized I needed to move onto more hopeful tomes!