As a kid I consumed fiction like a ravenous beast. I swallowed whole whatever came my way, from Tolstoy to Heinlein, Michener to Eugene O'Neill. My fiction addiction kept up for years, dragging me through Trollope, Muriel Spark, Colson Whitehead, Dickens, Murakami, Russell Banks, Christina Stead, Alice Munro, W.G. Sebald, Chang-Rae Lee, and hundreds of others. I have always profoundly wanted to see the world through everyone else's eyes: What does it feel like to be someone else, in another part of the world, facing the unimaginable? Since most people have trouble articulating their deepest experiences, even reporters don't necessarily get to hear what others feel. Great fiction has always seemed the best way to peer into others' joys and horrors.
But at some point I lost the habit, and began reading primarily for information. Maybe it's because reading is what I do all day for work. Maybe it's the parenting exhaustion, leaving so little brainpower left at the day's end. Maybe it's the boom in truly great television, making David Simon's The Wire the equivalent of Dickens for our era.
All of which is an enormous amount of throat-clearing just to say that I have fallen into a book of fiction that I absolutely love: Debra Spark's The Pretty Girl. A young American woman cleaning out her beloved grandmother's effects bites into a chocolate and finds a tiny rabbi who talks to her in parables. A Swiss farm girl, desperate to escape her confined and ugly life, falls accidentally into a wealthy and wonderful life in Paris, unaware that this new life was poisoned from the start. A cousin's slow and unfair dying overshadows a grifter's thievery. Complex stories unreel in plain, straightforward language, with emotions so underplayed that they startle deeply. Plot twists are revealed with the opposite of flash, slipped in behind the scenes, changing everything retrospectively, showing ordinary women's lives from angles that shift queasily and yet are revealed with great compassion. Reading these stories is a wonderful treat.
Full disclosure: I knew Debra Spark years ago, and had lost touch. I picked up the book when I went to hear her read, mainly to reconnect. But I buy many old friends' books—my life is lousy with writers—and rarely finish them (see disclosure, above), much less recommend them to strangers. I love the quiet depth, the historical scope, the surprising detail of this book. Read it, now.