Art and Heart: Six Debut Novels from Authors To Watch

New debut fiction to read and share, from authors worth looking out for. 

Angress, Antonia. Sirens & Muses. Ballantine. Jul. 2022. 368p. ISBN 9780593496435. $28. F

Having won several awards in the workshopping run-up to publication of her first novel, Angress emerges with a brilliant study of art, politics, male dominance, female passion, and the commercialized art world in the early 2010s. Occupy Wall Street has erupted even as women’s art remains undervalued when Cajun Louisa Arceneaux transfers to the fictional New England Wrynn College of Art on scholarship and is fired up both artistically and personally by prickly, prodigiously gifted roommate Karina Piontek, daughter of wealthy New York art collectors. Considered difficult and unstable by her classmates, Karina disdains them in turn; her upbringing by embattled, bruisingly neglectful parents has left her with the desire (and canniness) to make art that will bring her glory. Homesick Louisa regards her roommate cautiously, but when she uses Karina as a model for her bloodywinged bird woman paintings, the two begin a relationship that is the bedrock of the novel. Meanwhile, Karina remains involved with self-regarding senior-class agitator Preston Utley, who challenges a visiting professor once famous for his political paintings but now struggling for relevance, and these relationships shift and explode in multiple ways that drive the absorbing narrative. VERDICT A highly recommended novel of art and heart that viscerally represents the act of creation while balancing multiple themes to perfection.

Armfield, Julia. Our Wives Under the Sea. Flatiron. Jul. 2022. 240p. ISBN 9781250229892. $26.99. F

The multi-award-winning Armfield follows up her ruthlessly beautiful story collection, salt slow, with the arresting tale of two women: Leah, a marine biologist whose research trip to the depths of the Pacific left her stranded on the ocean floor for months in a disabled submarine with two other crew members, and her wife, Miri, desperate during those months and even more desperate when Leah finally returns. Leah is changed—she’s obdurately distant, barely speaks, and is obsessed with running the faucets—and an increasingly frustrated Miri gives up everything to try to reach the woman she loves and seems to be losing. Unfolding in tense yet tender flashbacks, their past proves complicated— “The problem with relationships between women is that neither one of you is the wronged party”—and their present veers toward danger. What was the purpose of the trip, sponsored by a shadowy organization that has since disappeared? Its motives and the hint of conspiracy might have been explored more, but the crucial point is what happened in the effectively rendered dark far beneath the waves. VERDICT A turn toward horror at the end will satisfyingly rachet up the tension for some readers but may discomfit others. Told in stunning language, Armfield’s heartrending story of two people forced apart by trauma is enough.

Phillips, Siobhan. Benefit. Bellevue Literary. Apr. 2022. 320p. ISBN 9781942658993. pap. $23.99. F

A Rhodes Scholar with advanced degrees from Yale and the University of East Anglia, Phillips purveys an authoritative insider’s perspective on academia and its social impact with the story of an at-loose-ends adjunct professor who attended Oxford on a Rhodes-like Weatherfield fellowship. Socially awkward and lacking a fancy pedigree, Laura felt out of place among her Weatherfield cohorts, who have gone on to success a decade later as she flounders, with both her job and her marriage out the window. A Weatherfield friend—but is she really a friend?—offers Laura work writing a history of the Weatherfield Foundation for its centennial, and Laura discovers ugly truths about the foundation’s roots in the exploitative sugar industry even as she reconnects with other breezily assured Weatherfield fellows. Lacquered with details of Laura’s struggles and her Weatherfield experiences, then and now, the narrative can initially feel slow. But Phillips is a smooth, steady storyteller, and the backstory connects directly to her portrait of academia as both reflecting and driving social inequities. VERDICT A smart, thoughtful read, occasionally needing patience; the socially engaged and younger readers facing the issues Phillips examines will especially enjoy.

Songsiridej, Alyssa. Little Rabbit. Bloomsbury USA. May 2022. 256p. ISBN 9781635578690. $26. F

From Electric Literature managing editor Songsiridej, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, this puzzling if refreshingly risk-taking debut examines the complexities of love and desire via the steamy relationship between a wealthy, established male choreographer and an aspiring young female writer, the book’s unnamed narrator. After they meet at a residency in Maine, she agrees to attend a dance performance he’s staging, and they quickly plunge into a relationship thrumming with erotic energy. As she is bisexual and has had some bad experiences with men, this turn of events alarms her lesbian friend and roommate. It alarms readers, too; how can she fall for an imperious older man who’s nicknamed her Little Rabbit because she’s “small and wild and determined to survive”? The novel ends with a work he choreographs for her on his lead dancer, which makes her see their love as frightening. But it doesn’t frighten her away: “I thought I’d served him all this time, but he really served me. …All to figure out what I wanted and to give.” VERDICT The relationship depicted here both challenges and disturbs, which would seem to be the point. Love is inexplicable and a hard taskmaster, and if Songsiridej doesn’t exactly nail what she wants, she asks important questions. 

Stevens, Nell. Briefly, a Delicious Life. Scribner. Jul. 2022. 320p. ISBN 9781982190941. $26.99. F

Award-winning memoirist and short story author Stevens (Bleaker House) examines the nature of desire and women’s fate throughout history with an intriguing, mostly successful reimagining of George Sand’s 1838–39 stay in Mallorca with her children and much-loved Frédéric Chopin, told from the perspective of a lusty, impetuous ghost. In 1473, 14-year-old Blanca dies giving birth at the monastery where her baby’s thoughtless young father is a novice. She remains there for centuries, learning how to assert herself in the world and prank the licentious monks until the monastery’s abandonment. Then Sand arrives with her entourage, and Blanca falls in love, having come to value women after her death; once they represented to her only “comforting boredom.” Because she’s mastered the art of reading memories, Blanca can narrate not only her life but Sand’s; when she senses crisis coming, she resorts to a little-used ability to see the future and diverts Sand and her little family from disaster. VERDICT Unexpectedly light in tone, Stevens’s story of patriarchal abuse is sadly familiar in outline. What stands out, aside from the powerful rendering of Chopin’s music, is the daring, desiredrenched Blanca. For a historical character, she can sound annoyingly like a contemporary teenager, but readers of all stripes will embrace her.

Warrell, Laura. Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm. Pantheon. Sept. 2022. 368p. ISBN 9780593316443. $28. F

“Jazz music is to be played sweet, soft, plenty rhythm,” proclaimed Jelly Roll Morton, and Warrell plays her exceptional first novel with plenty of rhythm and tenderness, delivered in brisk, mordantly gorgeous language that has its own natural flow. At its heart is fortyish jazz trumpeter Circus Palmer, a powerful, leonine, charismatic heartbreaker who performs regularly but hasn’t made it to the top of his profession, and the women connected to him. There’s Maggie, a brilliant drummer who has just learned she’s pregnant; put-upon ex-wife Pia; Koko, his confused teenager daughter, desperate for his love and attention; Odessa, a woman mourning loss whom Circus helps; pickups like bartender Peach and drama teacher Angela (Circus is decidedly a lovethem- and-leave-them type, engaging on his terms only); and more. Each woman has her own life, her own story—none is defined by Circus, though all are touched by him—and as in any good jazz piece these stories play off one another seamlessly. In the end, Circus isn’t just damager but damaged, coming to terms with his limits and learning to reach out, an understanding that Warrell movingly delivers. VERDICT A highly recommended story of love and life that makes beautiful music.

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Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, awards chair, and treasurer of the National Book Critics Circle.

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