February brings us a wide variety of historical fiction set around the world (France! Vietnam! Japan! England!), as well as two stories set in Maine. Whether you’re in the mood for melancholy and beautiful reads, light comedies, or a mixture of both, you’ll find plenty of books to love during this month of chocolate and love letters.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
If your preferred depiction of our 16th President lies somewhere between Team of Rivals and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you can’t miss Saunders’ debut novel, which straddles the line between historical fiction and the supernatural with daring aplomb. The “bardo” of the title refers to the Tibetan Buddhist term for limbo or purgatory, a “neither here nor there” waiting room between lives; in this case it’s a cemetery occupied by apparitions unwilling to fully depart this mortal coil, as well as the president himself, grieving the loss of his young son. It promises to be revered as a masterpiece alongside Saunders’ critically acclaimed, beloved short stories.
A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline
Ever wondered how Andrew Wyeth’s iconic 1948 painting Christina’s World came to be? Ever wish someone would pull a Sondheim and conjure up a creation story a la Sundays in the Park with George? You’re in luck! That’s exactly what Kline (author of Orphan Train, among others) has done with A Piece of the World, in which she imagines the life of Anna Christina Olson, Wyeth’s dark-haired, enigmatic subject. Famously depicted from the back as she crawls across a field toward her family’s farmhouse in Maine, Christina was Wyeth’s neighbor, a woman twice his age whose physical ailments he nonetheless related to. This emotionally resonant character portrait (in both senses of the word) promises to be full of memorable relationships and tragic detail.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan
An epistolary novel set in an English village in 1940, Ryan’s debut concerns itself with the women who’ve been left behind during World War II. Although the local church choir has disbanded with the mens’ absence, music professor Primrose Trent is having none of that and swiftly reinstates the songbirds as a ladies-only group. A series of letters and diary entries from a wide range of sympathetic characters, as well as the historical setting, should appeal to fans of Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road and Steve Kluger’s Last Days of Summer.
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This collection of short stories, centered on themes of immigration and displacement (specifically of Vietnamese people after “the American War”), is by the critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sympathizer. The nine shorts are heartbreaking, but also wide-ranging, humorous, and beautifully depicted. Ghosts from the Vietnam War show up, as do families living in San Francisco, San Jose, and Ho Chi Minh City, who are struggling not to merely survive but to live their best lives.
My Not So Perfect Life, by Sophie Kinsella
The latest by the bestselling author of the charming and addictive Shopaholic series will reward fans and newcomers alike. Real life is messier than Instagram, a fact 26-year-old Katie Brenner discovers when she’s fired from her London job at a branding agency and forced to return to the Somerset farm she left behind. Infuriatingly, Katie’s former boss Demeter does seem to have a perfect life, but when their worlds collide again in the countryside, Katie’s perceptions of Demeter must be reexamined. An ideal read for anyone who has ever felt pressured to present a picture-perfect online persona.
The Mother’s Promise, by Sally Hepworth
An expert at sensitively portraying families (particularly mothers and daughters), Hepworth has previously tackled the lives of midwives and the topic of early-onset Alzheimer’s. In Promise, a single mother, Alice, is diagnosed with cancer and fears for the future of her 15-year-old daughter, Zoe, who has struggled with social anxiety disorder since kindergarten. The previously insulated duo learns they’ll need to look outside their family unit if they’re to make it through. They join forces with Alice’s nurse as well as a high school social worker, both of whom have secrets and heartache of their own.
Always, by Sarah Jio
In this Seattle-set love triangle taking place across two timelines, 1998 and 2008, the main character is a journalist (just like bestselling author Jio). But as much as Kailey loves her dream job and perfect fiancé, nothing can take the place of her lost love, music executive Cade, who vanished mysteriously from her life 10 years before. When she discovers Cade is homeless, with memory loss, she becomes determined to help him, which complicates her current relationship. Romance fans, and fans of the ’90s music scene, will devour this book.
The White Russian: A Novel of Paris, by Vanora Bennett
You can never have too many books about Paris in the Jazz Age. This historical novel concerns exiled Russian immigrants viewed through the eyes of a young American woman. The year is 1937 and New Yorker Evie finds herself in the City of Light to visit her grandmother, whose dying wish is for Evie to locate a man from her past. As Evie navigates a hidden community in Paris during the tense lead-up to World War II, she falls in love with a Russian man whose political background may end up threatening both their lives.
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
The follow-up to Lee’s captivating debut, Free Food For Millionaires, depicts four generations of a Korean family from 1910 to 1989. When teenaged Sunja becomes pregnant by her married lover, she accepts a proposal from an older boarder at her parents’ boardinghouse who kindly offers her stability as his wife in Japan. Acclimating to a new country proves challenging, and the aftereffects of the move reverberate through the lives of Sunja’s children. A fantastic, sprawling epic you can really sink your teeth into.
Setting Free the Kites, by Alex George
A coming-of-age friendship tale that should appeal to fans of Stephen King and Robert McCammon (Boy’s Life). The year is 1976, the location is Maine, specifically a Knights of the Round Table–themed amusement park, and the leads are two eighth-graders, Robert and Nathan. The time period in which their pivotal bond is forged and strengthened sees both boys enduring tragedy: Robert’s older brother is dying, and Nathan’s father suffers a deadly fall off a roof. Smaller events, such as school bullying, are no less powerful in their lives, which are full of vividly rendered grief and joy.