Our book editor Sophia Cosby recommends three novels that pair well with cool linen sheets and the inevitable nostalgia that comes with Spring.
A Heart So White by Javier Marías
It’s been a couple of days since I finished A Heart So White, and I have returned to the book multiple times since then to re-read specific passages and to again immerse myself in this strange, quiet, soft, emotionally charged world created by the Spanish author Javier Marías, who passed away last September.
Our narrator Juan is a translator and an interpreter. As such, he sees the world through the lens of communication: what is said and what is not said, what is meant, and what is understood. Knowledge, or rather knowing, is of extreme value to him, and his curiosity often sends him into stream-of-conscious spirals and inquisitive tangents. We, as the reader, are along for the ride. (Not to worry, this isn’t your Joycian type of stream-of-consciousness. Instead, Marías effortlessly takes us from thought to thought, making the mental journey entertaining and relatable).
Still, Juan has a complicated relationship with his thirst for knowledge. He wants to know what is happening to a couple on the other side of a hotel room wall. Still, he’s afraid of knowing what actually happened with his father’s three marriages, first to an unknown woman, then to a woman named Teresa who committed suicide (the description of which is also the catalyst of the story), and then to Juan’s mother, who is Teresa’s sister. Wanting to know and not wanting to know is a theme throughout the novel. Is Juan’s wife having an affair with another man? Why is Juan’s friend standing outside of his window at night? Why did Teresa take her own life?
A Heart So White is definitely more of a mood-driven than a plot-driven read, but high-impact scenes will have you glued to the page. There’s a brief, incredibly weird, incredibly 90s interlude involving classified ads, dating videos on VHS tapes, and the logistics of the New York apartment of Juan’s friend Berta. There are remembrances of childhood figures, like the pretty young stationery clerk who turned into the old, stooped stationery clerk. Marías is a master of language, and Margaret Jull Costa beautifully translates the novel. All the characters are vividly painted: this world, from Spain to Cuba to New York City to Switzerland, is almost too real for comfort. Almost.
So if you like cerebral, mysterious, and moody stories with unforgettable characters and bizarre human moments, then A Heart So White is certainly for you.
Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
Quick-witted but not in a pretentious way, Dorothy Baker’s 1962 novel Cassandra at the Wedding is a time-machine to mid-century California. Think Berkeley, vintage cars, philosophy, music, lots of sun, and strong cocktails, all underscored by that weird mix of wholesomeness and drama that only a family can provide.
Though the title might suggest otherwise, this is not a romantic comedy, yet there are plenty of bittersweet comedic moments. The book's first half is told from the perspective of Cassandra, one-half of the Edwards twins. A super smart and cynical graduate student trying to finish her thesis, Cassandra is generally miserable about life. It becomes clear that it all goes wrong when her twin sister Judith decides to break their sacred bond to attend Julliard in New York. A second heartbreak awaits Cassandra when she learns that Judith intends to marry a young doctor. This is the way of Cassandra’s plans for her and Judith’s life together. The novel follows Cassie’s journey back to their childhood home and her subsequent confrontation with Judith, their grandmother, and their widowed father.
The book's second half provides complementary insights into Judith’s view and makes for an exciting conversation between the two sisters. If you like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, you’ll like this book. It’s the west coast version of intellectual cynicism with plenty of aesthetic moments peppered throughout.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
There’s nothing I could possibly add to the rich and eternal discourse surrounding Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. So all I will do, in case you’ve thought about tackling this mammoth of literature but haven’t dared to start, is to recommend that you please go for it.
Proust evokes such a specific feeling, something akin to lying in a field of grass in the southern European countryside on a sunny afternoon, surrounded by wild flora and having no obligations to which to attend. It’s a feeling I long for whenever my yearly springtime nostalgia rolls around, so this year, I picked the novel up again (Swann’s Way, the first volume of the series) to indulge.
A few overwrought details aside, the descriptions of turn-of-the-century France, the frivolous lives of the aristocracy with their Vichy water and passion for obscure poetry, and the simplicity and joys of country life (every last flower lining the steps to the country church are accounted for), the interpersonal dramas (Monsieur Swann! The cad!), and, of course, the narrative power of memory, make this the perfect read for anyone who is seeking some good old-fashioned high-brow escapism this season.