Even in the best of times, what seems to matter the most is our connection to other people; and in trying times, we can always reach out to those close to us. Even more heartwarming is when complete strangers touch one another in meaningful ways. The simplest gestures of goodwill can translate into the most important moments of a person’s life. Nowhere is that truth better exemplified than in good fiction. Here are a few books that do just that — and also will restore your faith in humanity along the way.
Anita Shreve’s latest novel, “The Stars Are Fire” (Random House, 256 pages, $25.95), hovers between chick lit and literary fiction, but there are moments in the novel that make it worth the occasional grimace over its romantic plot points. The story revolves around Grace, who in 1947 Maine, survives the drought-induced brush fires that burned thousands of acres of national park land, eliminated thousands of homes and took the lives of 16 people. Grace and her children survive by spending the night in the frigid sea, to be rescued the next morning along with thousands of others. Her husband — who went to fight the fire — is missing in action, her home and everything in it is gone, and she must find a way to survive with her two children. In this book, Grace is the one who often finds herself touched by the kindness of others.
Elizabeth Strout’s latest collection of intertwined stories may have a title that sounds like a self-help volume, “Anything is Possible” (Random House, 272 pages, $27), but these observant slivers of life are more likely to inspire you to help others, not just yourself. Don’t let the title fool you into thinking these are happy ending sunsets: Pain and discontent are more prevalent among these characters who, for the most part, still haven’t found what they’re looking for. That said, there’s a multitude of hope in this collection. Time and time again, Strout focuses her magnifying glass on small ways in which people make a big difference as they encounter one another, and how the most together-appearing member of a group may well be just as broken inside as anyone else. Seamlessly connecting these stories — a small-town girl turned big-city writer; a retired school janitor who must replace one lifelong secret with another; a war veteran who fears lack of pain more than pain itself; a daughter finally seeing her mother in a new light; a bed and breakfast owner summing up her guests; and a grandfather who opens his heart to a lonely stranger only to have it broken — these characters touch one another time and time again. And, as is often the case with linked story collections, part of the fun is seeing some of the same people from multiple perspectives.
In charming novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” (St. Martin’s, 304 pages, $25.99), Kathleen Rooney allows us to join Lillian Boxfish for an evening stroll through 1984 New York City on New Year’s Eve. Inspired by the real-life Margaret Fishback, the “highest-paid woman in advertising” of the early 1900s, this book is more about a love of city life and the joy of walking than it is about the real life of a real person. The beauty of this book lies in its celebration of human connections, however fleeting some of them may be. Lillian Boxfish, at 85, does not miss an opportunity during her more than 10-mile walk to boldly engage in conversation with those she encounters — whether it’s a limo driver offering her a ride, a family who invites her to share dinner or a pack of hoodlums trying to mug her. Rooney does not fall into the trap of sentimentality; her Lillian is too practical for that. However, this endearing character who claims civility as her religion makes it clear that her connections to those she encounters in the city, fleeting as they may be, are what makes life worth walking through.
Eric D. Goodman is author of Womb: a novel in utero (Merge, 2017). Learn more about his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com.