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Travel ‘Works to Shake Things Up,’ Says the Novelist Emily Henry



Over the last three years, the novelist Emily Henry has established a solid beachhead on summertime best seller lists with a series of travel-related rom-coms, starting with“Beach Read” in 2020, and followed by last summer’s “People We Meet on Vacation” and this year’s “Book Lovers.” All three novels currently share space on The Times’s combined Print and E-book fiction list.

In her books, a youngish woman — a writer or writer-adjacent — at a crisis point in her life, lights out for new territory where (not to give any spoilers), she finds her true calling — and her true love.

In “Beach Read,” dueling novelists occupy neighboring houses on a lake in Michigan, sparring until, of course, they stop. In “People We Meet on Vacation,” the travel writer Poppy Wright spends part of each summer taking a trip with her best friend from college, Alex Nilsen, who, dear reader, you know from the get-go is Mr. Right, even as the two of them hide from the inevitable. In “Book Lovers,” it is the hard-driving literary agent Nora Stephens who travels to the small North Carolina town of Sunshine Falls, only to encounter her nemesis from the Manhattan book scene, the editor Charlie Lastra.

Another theme in her books is the pull of family. Ms. Henry, 31, grew up in Cincinnati with two older brothers, and she, her husband and their dog live there now, near her parents. She fondly remembers their family trips, even if they did sometimes end up fighting “like a too-many-headed beast,” she said.

“We all still try to semi-regularly take trips together, which obviously can be complete chaos, but I just have so much nostalgia for that,” said Ms. Henry, who is at work on next summer’s novel. “I can’t talk about that yet,” she said of the project. “But I can say that it is travel-related.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

A book is already built to be a kind of vacation — even if it’s not an escapist book, even if it’s a very heavy literary novel, it’s still this trip that is packaged for you in a very specific way. And I think with travel-focused books you’re just amping that up even more.

On a trip there’s this feeling of possibility that you don’t necessarily have in your normal life because you’re going to be around all new people and all new things, and you don’t know what could happen and who you might meet. Everything just feels exciting. From a story perspective, it lends itself to this big transformation because characters are already on this sort of uneven ground. Travel works the same way that it works for us in real life: to just shake things up.

I think as a reader, it lends itself to that as well, because we’re already trying to go new places and meet new people when we’re reading. We’re craving something, some new experience that we want to bring into ourselves.

I do think that there’s something, yeah, transformative and you get to know yourself more deeply in a new environment.

And it’s the things that you don’t know about yourself, like the surprises, the risks that you take, that you wouldn’t expect, or the new foods you try, that you didn’t think that you would like or anything small like that. It’s also just seeing your regular life through new eyes.

Because I think there are places you go where you think like, oh, I can imagine my life here, and there are other places you go where you realize you’re just excited to get home. That’s one of the things I love so much about travel, too, is that you can get so complacent or unappreciative of your life, your real life, there really is nothing like that feeling of getting home.

I haven’t done a lot of international travel yet, but I grew up in a family that took road trips and so that is how I’ve seen most of the United States. It was pretty common to take a 14-hour road trip to Florida. We’d leave in the middle of the night so we wouldn’t have to pay for that one extra night and we would sleep in the back of the minivan and wake up and be there.

Now I find that every few months I feel this restlessness and urge to just be somewhere different and see new things and eat food that isn’t available to me. That is this rhythm that my family set up for me. You have new experiences to carry you through the mundanity of real life.

A lot of that really was just research and there are Facebook groups for that kind of thing, but I haven’t really used those. I am a huge fan of Airbnb, like much of my generation is. It’s just been such a game changer for travel, especially for extended travel. But also I think being raised by parents who were really good at that kind of thing helps. They would take the tours of resorts to get steeply discounted Disney World tickets. That really came into a lot of the writing of Poppy’s approach to travel.

Yeah, I’ve had a few. I don’t think of myself as the cleanest person, but now I am very thorough about checking the reviews for how clean the place is. I’ve definitely had some that are just kind of gross. There’s always artful photography. There was one that listed an additional bedroom and we got there and realized it was in an unfinished basement, and there also was like a hole in the wall to this other kind of storage room that seemed like a peephole. That was unsettling.

My favorite trip is to fly into San Francisco and drive up through Muir Woods and Muir Beach and then to see wine country. And then I have family up in Oregon. I love that drive. I love that you can see the ocean, the bay, the mountains, wine country, the redwoods, all within just this few hour span.

Seeing a place as a visitor is so different than being a local and I think that’s why Elin Hilderbrand’s books are so good, because she really knows Nantucket and she puts you right there. The places I’m writing about I’m only familiar with as a guest and it’s a different experience. It’s a really magical experience, but it’s not the same things that a local would pick out about their town.

I think if I lived in a more vacationy spot, I would probably commit to one place too, but I can’t see writing a bunch of books about Cincinnati. I’m sure I’ll have an outright Cincinnati book, but that’s not innately summery.

Oh my gosh. Not summer.

Amy Virshup is the editor of the Travel section.


Love, Absence and Loss, Filtered Through Philosophical Poems



This makes perfect sense, because in the Shaughnessy multiverse, everything contains everything else, or has that capacity. “There are no opposites,” the poet tells us. “There are only dimensions, relations, recurrence, series.” Elsewhere she says: “But nothing’s natural./And nothing’s unnatural either.” For Shaughnessy, the self is fluid, inquisitive, acquisitive and porous. “One person, that tangle of matter and energy, that bag of broken clocks dreaming of ness-ness, can never be only that one person nor the entirety of that person, but they can be more.”

If you had told me when I was in college that I could love a book of poetry that mentioned “the self” as frequently as this one does, I would have heaved a dictionary at your head. Yet Shaughnessy’s vibrant dives into the possibilities of that phrase invest it with multitudes. “I always wanted self/to be a magic scroll/the universe kept safe,” Shaughnessy writes. Me too. Maybe that’s why my younger self became irate when she felt poets were flinging the concept around lightly. Luckily, the self and its youthful prejudices can sometimes be revised.

Femaleness and iterations of feminism provide a framework for “Tanya.” The collection can be seen in part as a version of midlife stock-taking, via odes to women artists, mentors, lovers, frenemies and former selves. Virginia Woolf wrote, “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” Shaughnessy’s doing that here, tracing her own derivation and education through myriad mothers, stretching definitions of “mother” to include frictions, crushes, heartbreaks and inspirations that became part of her DNA.

No surprise then, given all this permeability and interpenetration, that boundaries, outlines and doors, those would-be enclosers and barriers, occur frequently in these poems. Shaughnessy asks whether artists have the right “to weigh and lay/to rest the question of half, of division, of border, of definition, of edge?” Elsewhere, in one poem she describes a ballerina as crossing “the strange wide water/between flower and force.” The beauty and economy of that line called up for me an image of the dancer bridging a riverlike division between delicacy and power, embodying both.

The book ends with the “long, careening” title poem, a 43-page surge that feels like high tide after the rising ocean that precedes it. (Structurally, this is similar to the way the last and title poem in Shaughnessy’s earlier book “Our Andromeda” becomes a crescendo, rallying and deepening the collection’s concerns.)

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And You Thought Your Family Had Problems



Indeed, one questions the motivations of a woman who casually relays to her brood over spare ribs and scallion pancakes that her late father was in fact a Black man. Sandy has always known, though he presumed she might spend a lifetime explaining away her kinky hair and olive skin: “Who knew that instead she would carry those facts like a suicide vest into a Chinese restaurant on Amsterdam and 69th? On Christmas Day, no less, the year’s strangest day for Jews, no less for him, a former celebrant.”

A fiercely unapologetic Naomi dismisses her own disclosure out of hand as “an asterisk.” In Row’s studied 2014 satire “Your Face in Mine,” white characters gladly volunteered for “racial reassignment surgery”; for Bering, though, the news is shattering, a core truth of her selfhood cruelly withheld.

By then she has already begun and ended a sexual relationship with her brother — a bombshell the book returns to intermittently as it bobs and weaves between other fraught narratives: Patrick’s post-collegiate spiritual quest in Nepal and monastic self-exile to Berlin; Winter’s struggles as an immigration lawyer in Trump’s circa-2018 America and the looming deportation threat against her Mexican-born fiancé; Sandy’s emotional reckonings and Naomi’s fresh romance.

Looming over them all is the novel itself, an anthropomorphized thing that serves alternately as spirit guide, secret architect and scamp — one that Row both engages with and interrogates, like a recalcitrant pet. “Suddenly, the novel wants to say. Suddenly something happened,” he writes, on the occasion of one startling revelation. “The novel opens its hand. Let me shock you, let me embarrass you. Cover your eyes, cover your mouth. Turn the music up.”

And the music here is very much turned up, a symphonic chorus that can be undeniably stimulating but also wearing. Can’t the Wilcoxes ever catch a break? Or, one wonders, do they want to? Likability might be for the lazy, but this family eschews it to an almost heroic degree: They are strident and congenitally stubborn, hamstrung by grievances and wounds they can’t or won’t close.

Even from the grave, Bering — her Hotmail drafts folder becomes a primary posthumous source for the text — remains something of a prickly enigma: a mercurial girl too scantly explored to really be known before she’s gone (though her journey allows Row to paint a deft, vivid sketch of the quagmire that is Palestine and Israel). The incest subplot feels like gilding an already rococo lily, the pure shock of it never entirely earned or explained, and Row’s heady prose occasionally tips into lit-major bombast, his paragraphs dappled with references to Barthes or Borges.

It can be delightfully tactile though, too: TV makeup is troweled on, “the consistency of hummus”; root vegetables lie in a crisper, “the warty stepchildren of the vegetable kingdom.” This is a book of warty, messy things, intractable and strange — but stumbling, maybe, toward a state of grace.

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Welcome to Immortality. Your Body Can’t Come With You.



The novel is set circa 2030. In America, the authoritarian right has jettisoned democracy, surveillance drones sweep the sky, deportation officers in skull masks patrol the subways, Florida has been nearly wiped out by tsunamis, there is talk of cannibals and doomsday cults running amok and … whatever. This critic feels as if he’s perpetually wandering, lately, through a mall bookstore called Dystopias R Us. The bookstore has locked its doors and will not let him out. Aiieeee!

Kalfar’s dystopia feels thirdhand. Happily, he has other things to work with. His heroine, Adela Slavikova, lives in a Czech village. On the novel’s first page, she learns she has not long, perhaps a year, to live. Her doctor, “a great poet of the macabre,” doesn’t give her the option of denial. He is determined to tell her exactly how awful it’s going to be: “crumbling bones, renal failure, death by brain bleed or fungal infection.”

Not long after, Adela is drunk on box wine in her bathroom, sliding off the toilet, as one does, when a carp she is keeping in the tub begins to speak to her. “Find your daughter, go, go now,” it says. “Idiot. Your destiny awaits in the New World.”

Adela gave a daughter up for adoption at birth, and she decides to go to America — the world according to carp — to find her. Kalfar’s inventiveness rolls as if on wheels. Adela flies on an ultra-budget airline where the seats have no cushions, each passenger is limited to one cup of water and you have to pay in cash to use the toilet. In New York, at MoMA, she sees a life-size hologram of Vincent van Gogh pop up and chastise a boy for touching a painting.

There’s a slight tentativeness to Kalfar’s written English (he was born in the Czech Republic, and immigrated to the United States at 15) that endears his protagonists, and renders them believable. He makes a virtue of a limitation. He has a Kurt Vonnegut-like satirical touch, at his best, as well as Vonnegut’s interest in science. He also has an old-world melancholy, beneath the humor, that will put some readers in mind of writers like Mordecai Richler and Jerzy Kosinski.

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