Got a long weekend stretching ahead of you? Try one of these popular page turners, each with a twist all its own. If you're a fan of literary fiction, The Lifeboat — a debut novel by 57-year-old Charlotte Rogan — will buoy you through a suspenseful afternoon. You may need two afternoons to polish off The Innocent, a muscular whodunit by perennial best seller David Baldacci. As for The Marriage Plot, well, settle into that comfy chair: Cerebral stylist Jeffrey Eugenides is about to rivet you in place for the weekend — but if you enjoy his novel as much as we did, you may not want it to end.
By Charlotte Rogan
Little, Brown and Company, April 2012, 288 pages
$24.99; ebook $11.99
Packed aboard an overloaded lifeboat with no savior in sight are 39 survivors of a shipwreck. Among them is our calculating narrator, Grace Winter, a young newlywed whose husband may have gone down with the ship. This quick read, set somewhere in the mid-Atlantic in 1914, manages to encompass a survival story, a courtroom drama and a morality tale: How relevant is the judgment of society, Rogan asks, when death is at hand and the ocean your only witness?
Grace tells her saga in the form of a diary written from her prison cell, where she awaits trial for "murder at sea." The first chapter is a flash-forward to this future fate, which makes for some gripping reading once Grace begins recounting how the lifeboat passengers coexist, or fail to, with every passing day (it's not pretty).
Rogan's portrayal of Grace Winter is as deft as her choice of that name. Grace's evaluations of her boat-mates' potential for treachery, for example, are skewed by her own powerful instinct for self-preservation. Rendered penniless by her father's suicide, she casually describes manipulating her wealthy fiancé to the altar. Yet where is the shame, Grace would surely ask, in trying to salvage one's own life? Whether or not you sympathize with the measures she takes to achieve that goal, the salt spray and moral quandaries that swirl through The Lifeboat sting long after the last page.
By David Baldacci
Grand Central Publishing, April 2012, 432 pages
$27.99; ebook $12.99
Life is complicated when you're a hired gun, but Will Robie's is a bloody circus: You can't read more than a few chapters of this fast-paced, camera-ready thriller before you start to fall behind on the body count.
Robie is a Glock-packing hit man for the U.S. government when his latest mission blows up in his face: He balks upon learning he's been sent to kill the wrong person, then finds himself targeted in turn by a dogged team of assassins. While evading their bullets and bombs — a slew of innocent bystanders aren't quite so lucky — Robie befriends a 14-year-old girl, orphaned for reasons he races through the plot to uncover. All this while rooting out the villains behind his own recent near-death experiences.
Scenes that might make you and me scream in horror spur Baldacci's characters to nothing more than unruffled exchanges. Staring at the body of a man just felled by a sharpshooter's bullet, for example, Robie remarks to a colleague: " 'Round blew right through his head. He won't be talking to anyone anymore.'
"She let out a long breath and stared down at the dead man. 'They're always one step ahead, it seems.'
" 'It seems,' said Robie."
Clones of our intuitive, self-contained hero populate countless thrillers, Baldaccian and otherwise, yet fans of the genre tend to be forgiving types. If you're willing to trade originality for intensity, The Innocent will not disappoint.
The Marriage Plot
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2011, 416 pages
$27.99; ebook $12.99
Anyone with bittersweet longings for their young adult days will be captivated by this witty coming-of-age novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex. (Already the book's been snapped up for big-screen treatment: Think St. Elmo's Fire peopled by smart young academics on the verge of adulthood — and nervous breakdowns.)
The Marriage Plot opens on Memorial Day weekend in 1982, as cynical-yet-romantic English major Madeleine is about to graduate from Brown University (the author's alma mater). Also in line for a diploma with Madeleine is one of the two young men who've fallen in love with her: Mitchell, a sensitive religious-studies major who has spent his college career fruitlessly yearning for Madeleine.
Meanwhile, her boyfriend, Leonard, has been hospitalized for manic-depression. His illness is a demon that Madeleine will come to know well after graduation: She moves in with Leonard on Cape Cod, where he has scored a research gig to study yeast. Mitchell, for his part, is sublimating his desire in a round-the-world quest for spiritual truth — or, failing that, a clue about what to do next in life.
The Marriage Plot — likewise the title of a seminar Madeleine takes on Austen-era novels that end in a wedding — ranges smoothly over the previous four years and forward to the summer of 1983. During this span all three characters grapple with the wrenching transition from beery, self-indulgent collegiate cocoon to sobering adult duties. Some readers may decide this topic's been milked to a fare-thee-well elsewhere, but Eugenides presents the graduates' passage with enough compassion and humor to make the tale feel fresh and true for any generation.
Christina Ianzito is a writer for AARP The Magazine and aarp.org.
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