7 Deadly Sins, 7 Great Reads

Jean Korelitz' You Should Have Known

In life, we want our friends to be kind, honest, and good. If we’re going to hang out with people, we’d prefer that they not sleep with our husband or take the keys to our car, drive it home drunk, and crash it. In literature, however, the very traits that make for a lousy friend make for a great character. They may not be nice, but let’s face it, the Scarlett O’Haras and Nurse Ratcheds of the world know how to make things happen. Check out these books for more folks who commit the Seven Deadly Sins…and don’t regret a single moment of it:

Wrath: Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, by Dave Eggers
The setup is creepy enough to earn an automatic place on my “sins” list: a young man named Thomas has snatched an astronaut and chained him up in an abandoned military bunker. Told entirely in dialogue, Your Fathers consists of Thomas’ conversations with his kidnappees (yes, the astronaut is only the first). But be prepared to be surprised, because it isn’t long before we sympathize with this guy, kidnapper or not. Fans of Eggers’ A Hologram for the King will recognize some common themes, and the outsourcing of American jobs is certainly one reason Thomas is so angry, but only one. Eggers saves his biggest revelations for the final chapters.

Avarice: The Devil I Know, by Claire Kilroy
For sheer destructive glee, it would be hard to top the property developers, politicians, and other assorted thieves in Kilroy’s black comedy. The main character, Tristram St. Lawrence, has been resurrected from Finnegan’s Wake (everyone who sees him keeps saying, “We heard you were dead!”), but you don’t need to know that to enjoy the joke.

Tristram made a fortune in Ireland’s property boom. Now that the economy has tanked and the country is bankrupt, he’s been hauled into court to give evidence, but don’t expect straight answers: Tristram has a very selective memory. In fact, to hear him tell it, the entire property scheme sort of fell into his lap by accident. Funny and deadly serious, Devil is a cracking good read.

Sloth: He’s Gone, by Deb Caletti
In another case of faulty memory, Dani wakes up one morning unable to remember the night before—or the fight she had with her husband, Ian. Does she worry when she sees the empty bed beside her, Ian unexpectedly gone? On the contrary. Dani breathes a sigh of relief and dawdles the morning away drinking coffee, thrilled to have the house to herself.

Unlike most of the sinners in this roundup, Dani actually is a nice person, someone I would hang out with. She just happens to have done some awful things: “Your history, dear God, it follows you. It’s under your skin and in your cells and it flows through your blood.” For starters, it turns out she and Ian met when they were married to other people, lying their way through a long, ugly, on-and-off affair before they finally tied the knot. Add the fact that the more we know Dani the more we suspect she had a hand in Ian’s disappearance, and you’ve got a book worth staying up all night for.

Pride: You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz
What would you say if I told you a therapist had written a best-seller scolding women who choose lousy men? You’d think, “So how good is her marriage,” right? Grace, the therapist in question, is the poster child for Pride. She’s smart and successful and married to a brilliant doctor…in other words, ripe for a fall.

Korelitz has lots of fun setting up the disaster. Though Grace’s husband, Jonathan, is never home—we don’t see him for most of the book—she’s oblivious, telling herself he’s just busy saving lives. Clues mount that something is wrong, but Grace ignores them all. She tells her poor, hopeful patients the same message she writes in her best-seller: Your own fault, my dears, you chose the wrong man. Ouch! By the time Grace’s perfect life begins to teeter, she’s been smug for so long that we can’t help but enjoy the crash.

Lust: It’s Beginning to Hurt, by James Lasdun
Everybody’s favorite sin. Where would fiction be without lust?

The title story in this collection opens with a middle-aged man named Bryar on the phone, lying to his wife about where he’s been. Rather than holed up in some cheap hotel, he’s been at a funeral. The woman who died was once his lover, and only now, many years later, does it strike him he may have made a terrible mistake. This insight, hitting Bryar just as he needs to lie to his wife and also (don’t ask) pick up some salmon for dinner, is his undoing. Afterward, we know, he’ll never be the same.

In another personal favorite, “The Natural Order,” two men travel across Greece soaking up the wine and sun. One man is a modern-day Don Juan, the other happily married. Temptation rears its head early on, and by story’s end the men will have traded places in a way that’s both surprising and sad. All of these stories feature characters on the brink of change, but how the change arrives is a mystery each time.

Envy: The Ballad of a Small Player, by Lawrence Osborne
Compulsive gambler Lord Doyle is what my aunt would call “a piece of work and then some.” He was a lawyer in England before he swindled a wealthy old lady, his idea of payback for the snooty aristocrats he used to envy. Now he’s on the lam, living 24/7 in the neon-lit casinos of Macao.

Until I read Ballad I never understood that gamblers can get the same rush from losing as from winning. Watching Doyle is like watching a plane go down in slow motion: you’re gripping the armrests, bracing for impact, knowing there’s no way to stop the crash. And crash Lord Doyle does, spectacularly. When he loses his fortune in a single boozy night of bad judgment, it seems he has finally hit bottom. But don’t count on it….

Gluttony: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo
Behind Mumbai Airport is a slum called Annawadi, where children make their living picking through airport trash for what they can sell. This is the other side of India’s wildly successful economy, an economy where the rich consume so much even their garbage is “a fortune beyond counting” to the poor. Journalist Boo won a Pulitzer for this book and deservedly so. It would be easy for us to pity the Annawadians, but she never lets us, showing us their lives and hopes and dreams in such vivid detail that we can’t help but see them as three-dimensional people. In other words, people like us.

At front and center is Abdul, the most resourceful of the garbage pickers. When his success allows his parents to add a storage room to their shack (something none of the neighbors has), it sets in motion a disaster of Shakespearean proportions. This is a story that will change how you think about the poor, and maybe yourself, too.

What deadly sin makes for the best reading?