Two Breathtakingly Humane Novels


David Grossman wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, To the End of the Land, which is also one of the most openly, unapologetically racking novels I’ve ever read. (I find myself equal parts wanting-to-read-it-again and bracing-against-the-incoming-pain.) As of a month ago, I had yet to attempt any of his others novels, although I’ve been meaning to. Then A Horse Walks into a Bar won the Man Booker International prize. And while I’m generally against prizes, I do have a soft spot for the Booker. So I read the novel. And it is brilliant.

A Horse Walks into a Bar takes place in a single evening, during a performance that is supposed to be stand-up comedy but is actually a largely improvised one-man show, the details of which—i.e., both the performance and the content of the performance—become increasingly harrowing as the evening wears on. There is plenty of flashback, and Grossman raises the stakes (which is he so good at doing) by placing people in the audience who are relevant in surprising ways. The pacing is perfect. The characterization is unbelievably (i.e., super-believably) distinct. And the pain, the pain, the pain: It’s right there again, right out front. Grossman’s ability to inhabit and explore pain is a marvel to me.


I read every Elizabeth Strout novel as soon as it’s released, and her newest—Anything is Possibleis my favorite. It’s more a series of connected short stories than it is a novel, although I was left with the feeling of having inhabited a unified world and completed a coherent arc. Nearly every chapter begins with the feeling of a small life being lived in a small town, and then the floor falls out from underneath us and the stakes go through the roof (mixed metaphor), and we’re living in the biggest tragedies there are.

It’s such a masterful work of narrative. I was reminded of Alice Munro, both in the gentle unraveling of plot and in the shocking surprises that wake us up from what we thought was a provincial stupor. Additionally, Strout is astonishingly skilled at developing character in a few deft strokes; after only a couple of remarks or a short internal monologue, we know these people so well. Riveting and gorgeous and humane. I wished it were longer.

5 Responses to “Two Breathtakingly Humane Novels”

  1. Chris aumack says:

    Hello. Recently read “my name is Lucy Barton,” by Strout. Have to work to get into books after discovering Facebook and Netflix! (1 year ago). Very unusual, subject “white trash” often unwritten about in fiction. Good. About mother and daughter. Will never forget the childlike joy on my mothers face when my dog put her head on my moms lap.

  2. Melissa says:

    Hey, Chris. *Lucy Barton* is actually my least favorite Elizabeth Strout novel, possibly for personal and psychological reasons (and not because, for instance, it is a lesser work). But anyway, I do highly recommend her other books. And hooray for dogs making moms happy. 🙂

  3. Eric says:

    I haven’t visited your blog in a while, but I thought I would check out what you’ve been reading, and of course, I am leaving it with a long list of books to add to my “to read” list.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Eric says:

    and by the way, I have To the End of the Land in both hardcopy and kindle, but have always kept putting it off. The first chapter is always a bit too cumbersome for me. But I will definitely give it another chance.

  5. Melissa says:

    Thanks, Eric! I haven’t had time to blog recently (holidays, travel, work) but have been meaning to write a post about Ali Smith’s book *Autumn,* which I absolutely loved. (Can’t wait to read her other books, of which there are many.) So there’s another rec for you. If you do end up reading *To the End of the Land,* let me know. I want to read it again at some point and/but need to brace myself.

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