Tag Archives: Sophie McManus

Is my favorite debut really a debut?

As I read the “Best of” book lists, and reflect back on my year of reading, I concur with Michelle Obama that the best book I read, and reviewed, this year was Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. Her poetic use of language, emotional openness and roving intellect made this memoir stay with me weeks and months after I put it down. And as I wrote in my review, my husband got so engrossed with the story that he actually missed his subway stop on his commute home, ending up in a completely different part of Brooklyn than he was headed, when he finally looked up from this book.

She tells the story of the untimely death of her husband at age 50, then goes back in time to share their love story and moves forward to explore her, and her children’s, grief. The book is a wonderful meditation on love and on loss. But although this book is her first memoir, Alexander is such an accomplished poet and academic, with eleven books of poetry and four books of essays published, that I wonder if she counts in the debut category? Since it was her first memoir, I took liberties to include her on my “debut” reading list, and after I loved the book so much, I wanted to share that with all of you.

As for the more traditional debuts, meaning an author without much of a publishing record when their debut novel came out, of the novels I read and wrote about this year, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and is being picked up on best book lists, including the Times 100. And while I enjoyed this book and admired its ambition, the three books that stayed with me the most are:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, for its magical tale and quirky story.

The Unfortunates, by Sophie McManus, for its breathtakingly precise and beautiful language that made me feel like I was reading a book written 100 years ago.

And Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon, for her ability to capture the teenage years of a unique girl growing up in Philadelphia.

Although The Unfortunates was written up quite widely when it came out and was nominated for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, all of these books deserve more attention than they got. And the authors all capture unique female stories which deepen our collective understanding of the world.

How about you? What debuts did you read this year that you really loved?

In the new year, I will write about books that I didn’t get to yet in 2015, including The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.

Happy holidays, dear readers….to a festive end of the year. Until 2016!


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The Unfortunates, by Sophie McManus


The Unfortunates

By Sophie McManus

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

353 pages

The Somner family has seen brighter days. Cecilia, “CeCe” the matriarch, an heiress to a family fortune, has a degenerative disease and decamps to a rehab facility for experimental treatment, hoping to bring back her life as she once knew it. George, her son, dreams of having his opera, The Burning Papers, produced at any cost. And Iris, George’s wife, struggles to hold herself, and her marriage, together as George pursues his creative dream. Told in alternating voices, The Unfortunates tells the stories of these three characters over the course of one year.

This is sumptuous read. McManus has a beautiful use of language and the stories slowly unfold on the page, reminding me of novels from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. George is a tragic character, wealthy and in need of nothing material, yet restless and unsatisfied with life. CeCe is a demanding mother overly concerned with appearances and material items. Iris marries into the family, and their wealth, and is more comfortable with Victor, a man they hire as a personal trainer and dog walker, than she is with CeCe.

This is a book about family, wealth and ambition and what it means to come from a family of influence that has a name that is recognized and needs to be protected. It is also a story of denial and isolation and the extent to which we all live in our own bubbles. I enjoyed this book for its beautiful, meticulous, language and for the characters, who were relatable to me. The Unfortunates is a perfect summer read, to be slowly enjoyed on a hot summer afternoon. And the story culminates with some interesting twists and turns, which I will not reveal.

McManus lives in Brooklyn. The book has been mentioned on summer book lists and was long listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize for 2015.

This book’s cover is my favorite of the year!


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The Center for Fiction — 2015 First Novel Long List

The Center for Fiction does good work. They host readings, classes, reading groups and foster an interest in fiction writing. They also have an annual prize that acknowledges the best debut novel of the year. Their long list is out, and The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which I reviewed last month, is on it, along with Sophie McManus, whose The Unfortunates, I will review next. Two other titles that stood out to me are:

Girl at War, by Sara Nović, a coming of age story set in Croatia during the Yugoslav Civil War, and New York in 2001, about a young woman coming to grips with her experiences during the war.

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy, a family drama set in Detroit in which the 13 children in the Turner Family need to decide what to do with the family house, which has lost its value in the financial collapse.

Happy summer reading!


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