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February’s Best Fiction: 11 Must-Read Books

The secret lives of parents are revealed in "The Family Chao," "Black Cake," "The Swimmers" and "The Secret Love Letters of Olivia Moretti" / BY Nathalie Atkinson / January 27th, 2022

Our pick of the month’s best fiction features a new novel from Heather O’Neill, a #MeToo moment on a college campus, sexual awakening and “sex magic,” as well as loads of family secrets and locales from the Amalfi Coast to the Caribbean.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image. 

1When We Lost Our Headsby Heather O'Neill

From Giller Prize finalist O’Neill (The Girl Who Was Saturday Night) comes a historical novel set against a backdrop of mounting class and labour unrest in Victorian Montreal. It follows the lifelong relationship between two women, one a privileged sugar factory heiress, the other a more streetwise newcomer. Their intense childhood friendship leads to dangerous behaviour with fatal consequences. Although it separates them, they find one another irresistible and, over the years, that magnetism draws them back, leaving a trail of devastation. (Feb. 1)

2Vladimirby Julia May Jonas

While their relationship isn’t as volatile as George and Martha’s from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the academic couple at the centre of this #MeToo campus novel is just as toxic. The wife, a popular professor in her late 50s, narrates it with a sense of resignation as she navigates the fallout from her husband’s inappropriate affairs and has a sexual reawakening after a charismatic young couple arrives at their small, liberal arts college. Author Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin) praises this debut about power, female agency and domestic apathy as “droll, dry, and pacy.” (Feb. 1)

3Mrs. Death Misses Deathby Salena Godden

It comes from a place of grieving,” is how Godden, a British poet of Jamaican-Irish heritage, explains the genesis of her buzzy debut. “I was mourning, in a very dark place and looking for the light.” In this original concept, which mixes poetry, prose and even non-fiction, death is personified as an elderly, working-class Black woman who takes various forms. Mrs. Death is so exhausted by the senseless dying around her that she unburdens herself by dictating stories about her work to a young poet. Actor Idris Elba was such an enthusiastic fan when the novel was published in England last spring that his production company acquired the film and television rights. (Feb. 1)

4The Family Chaoby Lan Samantha Chang

This tragicomedy, written by the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, explores the Chinese diaspora and issues of long-term assimilation into mainstream culture over the course of three decades of a Chinese-American clan in the American Midwest. The intrigue concerns three brothers – and their family-owned restaurant – who uncover stern truths after their despotic patriarch turns up dead. While it might seem an unlikely comparison, navigating the legacy they inherit is worthy of the hit HBO show, Succession. (Feb. 1)

5The Matchmaker: A Spy in Berlinby Paul Vidich

In the months leading up to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, an American translator reconstructs her seemingly happy marriage as the authorities question her. Was she just an easy mark, duped by the East German secret police into marrying a man who may be a Stasi spy? Vidich conjures the minutiae of this momentous historical event – the protests and tense days before officials re-opened the border – in this Cold War espionage drama thats also a tantalizing domestic noir. (Feb. 1)

6Cleopatra and Frankensteinby Coco Mellors

This is the debut novel from a 32-year-old British expat and current literary It girl who has been likened to Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh (the moody cover art alone signals it’s millennial fiction catnip). It dissects the intense chemistry of an impulsive marriage between young, bohemian, English artist Cleo, and Frank, an older self-made advertising executive. The relationship’s impact on those around them plays out against a backdrop of New York’s social swirl. (Feb. 8)

7Black Cakeby Charmaine Wilkerson

This hotly anticipated debut from an Italy-based former journalist unites Benny and Byron in the wake of their mother Eleanor’s death. Anticipating they will grant her final wish to reconcile – and share the traditional Caribbean black cake shes left in the freezer for when the time is right” – Eleanor has recorded the true story of her life. The estranged brother and sister are shocked to learn their mother, who grew up on an unnamed Caribbean island in the 60s, was the daughter of a Chinese man and a Black woman, for example, among other revelations about her life before she settled in California. As the novel alternates timelines and points of view, the black cake becomes a potent symbol of community and belonging. (Feb. 1)

8The Book of the Most Precious Substanceby Sara Gran

The acclaimed U.S. novelist and screenwriter (Come Closer and Dope) launches her new independent press, Dreamland Books, with this erotic thriller. Both endeavours are, in part, inspired by the current dearth of books that feature cool, middle-aged women, like Susanna Moore’s 1995 novel, In the Cut. The story is about a powerful, antique manual about “sex magic” that alters the life of a down-on-her-luck rare books dealer as she tracks it around the world and into the sexual demi-monde. (Feb. 8)

9The Wind Whistling in the Cranesby Lídia Jorge, trans. by Margaret Jull Costa and Annie McDermott

This prolific author’s acclaimed 2002 novel is set in the decade following the Portuguese Colonial War (1974) and explores both social issues and personal drama. As a young woman investigates unexplained events surrounding her grandmother’s death, the page-turning saga focuses on the friction between the Leandro family and their working-class tenants, the Matas – a family of immigrants from Cape Verde – who live in a coastal Algarve town. Comparisons to the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante are inevitable. (Feb. 8)

10The Lady in the Silver Cloudby David Handler

This latest installment in the cozy series by the Edgar-winning author is just the thing to read while waiting for the next season of Only Murders in the Building. Amateur sleuth Stewart Hoag, a ghostwriter, is temporarily living in an upscale apartment complex on Central Park West and simply can’t resist investigating the murder of his wealthy neighbour, an elderly widow. One by one, he discovers the resident socialites, tycoons and eccentrics are keeping secrets, and all fall under suspicion before the satisfying resolution. (Feb. 15)

11The Swimmersby Julie Otsuka

What begins as a social satire about swim obsessives takes a turn for the poignant in this mesmerizing novel of grief and loss. When the local pool closes for repairs, it’s just bad luck for most devoted recreational lap swimmers, but it has larger consequences for Alice. The retired label technician is in the early stages of dementia, and the disruption to her daily routine not only takes away her solace, it contributes to her cognitive decline. As her Japanese-American daughter prepares to move her mother into a nursing home and learns more about her internment camp experience, a lyrical story unfolds about fading memories and remembrances. It vividly renders both the mother-daughter relationship and the communal consequences of Alzheimer’s disease. (Feb. 22)

12The Secret Love Letters of Olivia Morettiby Jennifer Probst

This is a book for pure escapism – and, okay, a bit of realism to anchor the uplift. When their mother dies, three sisters are surprised to find they’ve inherited a cottage on the Amalfi Coast. There’s also a stash of love letters from a mysterious man known only as “R,” who promised to meet her there on her 65th birthday. Naturally, the trio travel to Positano to unearth their mother’s mysterious romantic past, and try to resolve both long-simmering sibling tensions and their own various states of unhappiness. (Feb. 22)


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