People Who Knew Me
By Kim Hooper. (St. Martin’s, 296 pages, $25.99.)
Kim Hooper draws on the popular fantasy of escaping from one’s life as she puts her heroine through the wringer in this debut novel examining love, identity and forgiveness.
In the 1990s, New York City newlyweds Drew and Emily Morris are very much in love, until the strains of his care for his mother, who has Parkinson’s, and career setbacks drive them apart. Emily starts working for former college classmate Gabe, who carries a torch for her, at a posh investment firm in the World Trade Center. They have an affair, and she learns she’s pregnant. She’s ready to leave Drew when Gabe is killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Emily’s husband, mother and best friend think she, too, perished at work, but she was at Gabe’s apartment. She’s “quite certain that they shouldn’t love” her and wants to start over as “a better person,” so she leaves for California.
Fourteen years later, she’s using the name Connie Prynne (taken from two favorite literary characters) and working as a bartender while caring for her daughter, Claire. Connie avoids romance and tries not to look back. Then she finds out she has an aggressive form of breast cancer, and must confront her past to ensure Claire’s future. “Time doesn’t heal all … and tragedies don’t make you stronger,” Connie thinks, remembering when she was “a little selfish, a little idealistic, a little sad.”
Hooper skillfully moves between the past and the present as Connie reveals her path from youthful naiveté to middle-aged remorse, guiding the reader through swings of pathos, pain and hope.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
By Svetlana Alexievich, translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich. (Random House, 496 pages, $30.)
“Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets” is a remarkable account of the struggles of ordinary men and women to find meaning in post-Soviet society. The oral history is by Byelorussian author and journalist Svetana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
The book gives voice to the many Russians left adrift as their nation abruptly charged into capitalism in the 1990s, following seven decades of communism. They include laborers, architects, gulag survivors, former Communist Party members, mothers, fathers and children. Many view capitalism, and the constant pursuit of wealth, to be soulless endeavors.
“Russians need something to believe in,” says a man Alexievich meets on the street. “Something lofty and luminous. Empire and communism are ingrained in us.” He adds: “With socialism, the people were participating in history. They were living through something great.”
Those interviewed generally acknowledged communism’s many failings, including gulags, wars and constant shortages. But there was an order to life, many said, and an economic equality.
“We grew up in a country where money essentially did not exist,” said one woman. “Like everyone else, I’d get my 120 rubles a month and that had been enough. Money appeared with perestroika. Money became synonymous with freedom.”
Many Muscovites lamented the demise of intellectualism and the arrival of “completely new people … these young guys in gold rings and magenta blazers.”
While impressive in scope, the book would have benefited from tighter editing of the individual interviews, and a more specific delineation of who is speaking. Regardless, the Nobel Prize Committee called Alexievich’s writing “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”