A Ladder to the Sky
By John Boyne. (Hogarth Books, 368 pages, $27.)
Are novelists, by definition, monsters? John Boyne raises this provocative possibility in “A Ladder to the Sky,” which could be seen as a more soulful, better written entry in the “Woman in the Window”/“Girl on the Train” category of domestic thrillers. Taking to the extreme the idea that every novelist turns the people they meet into fodder for literature, this book’s monster/novelist is Maurice Swift. We meet him as a handsome cad (if there were a drinking game for the number of times Boyne describes Maurice’s comeliness, readers would be wasted by page 10).
Quickly, he worms into the orbit of distinguished novelist Erich Ackerman, establishing a pattern: Maurice wangles a relationship with a writer, sucks out their story and then dumps them, like a literary vampire. A deft plotter, Boyne has fun with the idea that vampiring is simply part of what novelists do, and he implicates readers in their acts of thievery-as-creation by making us like despicable Maurice, almost against our will.
His behavior grows more and more reprehensible across several decades and it may not be until you close this devilishly entertaining novel that it occurs to you to wonder if, by continuing to devour his exploits, maybe you were encouraging his villainy.
The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer
By Charles Graeber. (Twelve Books, 302 pages, $28.)
In his introduction to “The Breakthrough,” Charles Graeber — following up his riveting, true-crime “The Good Nurse” — lauds Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of Maladies” but notes that the type of cancer research he’s writing about in “The Breakthrough” is so recent that it wasn’t even mentioned in Mukharjee’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner.
Throughout this new book, there is a sense of things happening so quickly that there’s no way to keep up with them, which is both undeniably true (weeks before the book’s publication, a major figure in it, Dr. Jim Allison, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine) and a key theme of “The Breakthrough”: Do whatever you can do to fight off cancer because, like the people in Graeber’s book, those treatments may keep you alive until bold new strategies emerge.
Graeber’s writing is swift and clear, as if he can barely contain his enthusiasm for the subject — and, in fact, he can’t contain it: One of the best chapters comes after the book proper ends, a lively appendix that races through the history of immunization. One or two chapters are weighted down by talk of cell division and the like but, for the most part, Graeber paints vivid portraits of people who have cancer or are trying to conquer it.
My favorite is plain-speaking music executive Jeff Schwartz, who “knows he was one of the lucky ones” because, having been given just weeks to live, he bargained his way into an experimental treatment that made him feel better the minute it was first injected into his arm. It’s an incredible moment and, obviously, it doesn’t work out as well for everyone, but Schwartz’s story leads directly to other cancer success stories in “The Breakthrough,” which is a rare and thrilling thing: a hopeful, even inspiring, book about cancer.