The most perfect book ends, and we, the readers, are left behind. The conundrum: Begin another immediately? Or bask for a long pause in the wonder of the story just read? Better yet, tell a friend about the book.
Here then, are the best fiction books I read in 2017. Not every book I read, or the non-fiction ones, these are the fiction books I recommend to you. I’ll review a few titles each month so you can absorb the list in small spurts as you wander through 2018, looking for a good book to read. There may be a few spoilers, so be cautious.
The first two books I’ve selected present stories about cultures that subjugate women to secondary status. Yet both reveal women whose internal strength and firm adherence to personal objectives ensure the future of their communities.
America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. This novel is based on the life of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, oldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson. The focus of the book is how his political career, always shaky, impacted his family, including his slaves, and though it’s historical fiction, the book is a likely stretch of what might have happened. Dray and Kamoie researched thousands of original documents and letters, putting together a complex puzzle. Martha Jefferson, his oldest daughter, was a woman of her time when women had no legal rights but devised clever manipulations to be significant in society. A debutante in Paris, she witnessed the inception of the French Revolution, modeled on the success of American colonists, and served as Jefferson’s First Lady in the White House.
The book opens with Martha burning her father’s papers after his death, the ones she deemed too salacious or common to be preserved as her father’s words. She strove to protect her father’s legacy and in so doing, fabricated some of what we know about him by deleting certain documents that would have cast him in a negative light.
Sally Hemings, the other prominent woman in his life, his famous slave made lover whose descendant legacy is well documented, provides a conflicting view of what might have been preserved. It’s probable that the question of Hemings’ children being fathered by Jefferson is in dispute because of Martha’s actions. The book is a treatise against slavery even though Jefferson did not free all his slaves, a broadsheet for preserving democracy, and an eerie parallel of our current political climate, though a reverse of ideals in the present administration.
Were you to ask today about the woman most important to Thomas Jefferson, most folks would answer that it was Sally Hemings. Yet it was his daughter, Martha Washington, who shaped our image of the third president of the country, every part of what we know about him except his life with Hemings. Subjugating herself to the sideline, Martha gave us a man of dignity and noble purpose. In reality, he was all that, and also a deeply flawed human being like the rest of us. Dray and Kamoie have pulled Martha out of the shadows to stand in her own light.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. The story follows the life of a Chinese woman of an isolated mountain tribe destined to be the inheritor of a rare tea. She becomes pregnant by her lover and gives up her newborn daughter, cradling the infant without a name but with a small cake of the priceless tea. See describes the complex art, difficult hands-on labor, and uncertain success of tea growing in China. It’s also about a deep rooted culture that doesn’t recognize the value of girls even as it depends upon them for the family to function, and so allows the American adoption of Chinese girls with little paper trail to follow the children. See’s stories explore how women find ways of surviving China’s oppressive patriarchal society. Also touched upon are the place of ethnic clans in China, the way this century and the last one have impacted the country, the tea export business, the exaggerated value of extremely rare and exotic teas, and China’s quixotic relationship with America.
The robust tea fields of China have often been photographed. Even people like me who are tourists only via the Internet can identify rolling acres of tea leaves. This book informed me of the back breaking work of growing a crop given to the whimsy of nature as much as any story is given to a grifter’s imagination. Tea farmers dedicate their lives in the fields and off to the health of the crop with no guarantee of a good harvest. Tea Girl replaced the romantic version promoted by the tourist industry with the grittier, truer one. The writer’s dedication to exhausting research and her passion for her ethnic heritage shines in the book, almost as good as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and much better than some of her other books.
If you’re wandering the book aisles, looking for a good read, these reviews might give you something to consider.
I’d love to know what books you’ve read in the last year or two that you’d most recommend.
Image of America’s First Daughter, courtesy William Morrow/Harper Collins
Image of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, courtesy Simon & Schuster