Two Sun-Splashed Novels – The New York Times

Two Sun-Splashed Novels - The New York Times

Dear readers,

Every time I lose my bearings — and my soul — in a department store, I wonder: Is this how nonreaders feel at Barnes & Noble?

No, I don’t want to try a new fragrance. Yes, I’d like a fitting room, but I don’t understand why the curtain is always one inch short of full privacy. Or why the escalator is too fast/too slow/surrounded by unavoidable mirrors that make me look like Danny DeVito’s mom in “Throw Momma From the Train.” Also, why are they pushing macramé bikini “resort wear” in February?

You understand why I do most of my clothes-shopping online.

Where I live in New Jersey, it’s so cold and relentlessly gray these days, it’s hard to believe we share a planet with white sand beaches. To this end, I’d like to recommend two sun-splashed books for those of us who are not in the market for a straw visor or a colorful caftan. These novels will make you feel better about bypassing resort wear for what companies, for some reason, insist on calling a “base layer,” but you and I can still think of as long underwear.


Welcome to Jamaica! Nicole Dennis-Benn whisks readers into the sweltering worlds of three women in Montego Bay: Delores, who sells T-shirts and souvenirs at an outdoor market, preying upon American tourists who are too polite (and too dopey) to haggle; and her daughters, Margot and Thandi, separated by 15 years but united in the goal of staying as far away from their mother as possible. For Margot, this means working the desk (and sometimes the bedrooms) of the Palm Star Resort. For Thandi, it means studying hard and getting the education that will launch her out of the only world she knows. When you get to know Delores, you understand why both daughters would happily leave without a backward glance.

I read “Here Comes the Sun” when it first came out and returned to it during a pandemic winter when I craved the hustle and bustle of a faraway place. But this time I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Bahni Turpin, who makes quiet moments as meaningful as boisterous ones.

Suddenly I appreciated Dennis-Benn’s elegant take of sisterhood: “The innocence of her sister’s face holds Margot in place. Margot wonders what she’s dreaming. Maybe she’s running through a field of marigolds, the sky arched above her like a billowing blue sheet hanging from a clothesline — stretching from the beginning to the end of time.”

Read if you like: “Behold the Dreamers,” by Imbolo Mbue; “Bad Sisters”; “Ladybird”; survival stories involving humans instead of nature
Available from:, OverDrive, AbeBooks, a decent used-book sale

Fiction, 2020

“The island is a lovely nowhere suspended in gin-clear water,” Schaitkin writes of the average tourist in the opening pages of her debut novel. “When they return home, they quickly forget the names of things.”

But, for the family we meet in “Saint X,” the (fictional) island is calcified by tragedy. They won’t forget anything: not the name of the beach where they sipped punch and played volleyball, or the little cay just off the coast, with a waterfall and wild goats. This foursome will return to their snowbound suburb minus one member, Alison (“never Ali”). She disappears on the final night of vacation — and so the nightmare begins.

“Saint X” is another novel about sisters separated by more than a decade. Claire is 7 when we meet her, with a younger sibling’s paparazzi view of Alison, a college student with a sly streak. We see Alison through the young Claire’s eyes (“Her sister is a secret whispered in her ear”) — and in later years we see Claire struggling to adjust to life as an only child, determined to get to the bottom of what happened to her idol. But at what cost?

Hulu made a reasonably entertaining version of Schaitkin’s novel, but it’s an afternoon snorkel compared with the book’s deep sea dive. If you want to paddle around with a few sea turtles, turn to the little screen; if you want to get close to the vibrant ecosystem of the coral reef, dive into these pages.

Read if you like: armchair travel; “The Vacationers,” by Emma Straub; the first season of “White Lotus”; thrillers that paddle uncomfortably around the edges of real life
Available from: Your local library, an airport bookstore, a collector of cautionary tales

  • Watch Derek Walcott, crown prince of Caribbean verse, reading at the 92nd Street Y in 2007?

  • Get better acquainted with the world’s most prominent star? “The Sun: A Very Short Introduction” is Philip Judge’s wonky guidebook to the place we’ll never have a chance to go. To read it is to hear Carl Sagan’s voice narrating “Cosmos.”

  • Page through Abandoned Malls of America,” a haunting photo book of retail palaces past, including ghostly facades, foodless food courts and shattered plate glass windows? Joni Mitchell sang it best: “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”

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