The Shortest Way Home
By Miriam Parker. (Dutton, 313 pages, $26.)
If Miriam Parker’s debut novel were a wine, it would be a super-fizzy Champagne rather than a serious, heavy port. OK, that analogy might not work because I know nothing about wine, but Parker does, and her knowledge is splashed liberally through this romantic novel.
Set in the wine country around Sonoma, “The Shortest Way Home” is told by Hannah, a young woman about to graduate from business school and head for a lucrative Goldman Sachs job in New York. But during a getaway weekend in wine country with her almost-fiancé, Ethan, she visits a historic, down-on-its-heels winery and surprises everyone — especially herself — by impulsively giving up New York, putting Ethan on the back burner, and taking a marketing job at the winery.
Yes this is a romance, but it is also a novel about a young woman finding herself, figuring out the difference between what she wants to do with her life and what others want. While things unfold at a rather breakneck speed — job offers within minutes, romances kindling with a few smoldering glances — the gorgeous weather, the tempting wines, the handsome son of the vintner and, yes, the resident dog all make for a charming weekend read.
That Kind of Mother
By Rumaan Alam. (Ecco, 291 pages, $26.99.)
Big issues get enormous due in New York writer Rumaan Alam’s accomplished and moving second novel — the nature of family, race and class relations, adoption’s complexities and what Louise Erdrich once described as “the subjugation of the self” that accompanies early motherhood. Yet thankfully for us, it’s a well-told story about people, not issues. Rebecca Stone, a poet and busy diplomat’s wife who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s, struggles to adjust to motherhood and is saved by Priscilla Johnson, a kind lactation counselor whom she hires as a nanny.
Priscilla quickly becomes Rebecca’s most treasured friend. When Priscilla, who is black, dies in childbirth, grief and love move Rebecca, who is white, to adopt her baby. The book is at its strongest when Alam explores the primal intensity of being a new parent, bio or adoptive: “It went unsaid, in the parenting books, in the chatter on the playground, in the warnings from her big sisters, that the baby needed you but also you needed the baby. … You could hold on to them and it was like you were holding onto life itself. … A baby was so weak — why should it make you feel invincible?”
But most of the story is about how parenthood expands, changes and tests Rebecca and her family over the next few years. Rebecca, a woman of advanced education, privilege and goodwill, learns several ways that love and money are not magic keys to the hearts and minds of others. It’s good to be able to say that the children in this book fare better than the adults, a bright thread in a book whose wince-worthy last line opens a poetry-prize acceptance speech the ever-hopeful Rebecca is delivering: “It’s 1999 and I believe a better world is coming.”