Palette Cleansers 2022

What others may know as beach reads, I think of palette cleansers. These are the lighthearted, romantic, typically feminine novels that dull the ache of that last round of dystopian chaos that was either read or worse…lived in 2022. Palette cleansers are gentle escapism – significantly less likely to give one a headache than an additional glass of wine. And yes, I still have criteria for my palette cleansers. They have to have enough character development that I care whether or not the protagonist lives happily ever after. There has to be enough of a hook. White girl trying to make it big in New York while dating loser guys until she meets the guy is not a plot, it’s a cliché.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

I first encountered Sittenfeld’s writing through an essay she published in Real Simple, which was her about her journey in making friends in middle age. In that piece, she shared a side tangent about her friend mocking her for paying with a Gap credit card, like a 24-year-old with mediocre taste. Those few lines cemented Sittenfeld in my mind as an exceptional chronicler of the suburban absurd. She has such a knack for exploiting the ridiculous in everyday life and interactions. When I learned that she had penned a Pride and Prejudice retelling set in Cleveland, it was a no-brainer. Spoiler alert – Darcy is from Atherton, Mary is in bowling league and Lydia’s love interest is trans. Equally enjoyable is Sittenfeld’s collection of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It.

Book Nerds by Emily Henry

Emily Henry is a YA novelist turned beach read extraordinaire. This recently published novel follows the story of Nora Stephens, a hard-edged literary agent whose most significant relationship is with her Peloton. Of course, her life is really a meticulously constructed defense mechanism against the pain of losing her mother in college and having to semi-raise her younger sister. It doesn’t help her already-fragile psyche that many of her previous romantic relationships have ended with her being dumped when the boyfriend instead chooses a small-town, girl-next-door type. Daisy dukes. Cold beer. Long pigtails. Henry’s writing is at its best when she allows Nora to fixate on these archetypes and tropes and essentially uproariously narrate her own story. When Nora finds herself in small town outside of Asheville, NC, meeting an Adonis-like blonde carpenter, she does her damnedest to fight against the inevitable ending. Fortunately for her, a brooding and cynical professional rival from New York enters the scene and ensure that the carpenter doesn’t stand a chance. The dialogue is wickedly sharp and that alone makes this worth reading.

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

The readers first meet Elizabeth, a prominent writer from New York, scrolling through her phone in the middle of the night as she breastfeeds her baby. She has recently moved to a small town after her husband accepts a professional opportunity at a local college. Amid all these transitions, Elizabeth gravitates towards Sam, a college senior whom she hires as a part-time nanny. Sam is initially wowed by Elizabeth, by her loving home and husband, her professional success and her overall poise and gravitas. In Sam, Elizabeth celebrates a sense of fresh possibility and she imagines herself as a mentor in to Sam in both her professional and romantic journeys. As the two become more vulnerably entwined, they will create the conditions that ultimately lead to betrayal. The author did an interview with NPR when this book was first published and shared that had done her own share of nannying at Sam’s age and now finds herself identifying with the Elizabeth’s life stage. She wanted to explore this kind of relationship – its inherent intimacy, class dynamic and ultimately situational context. If you enjoy these layered character explorations, I would equally recommend Sullivan’s Maine, which follows the intergenerational lives of four female family members.

“Anti-palette cleanser”

I am completely into the new trend of anti-beach reads. They are as they sound: gritty, hard-hitting, and often violent. Not sure how much I will want to read these while sipping my sangria but they make the best kind of road trip audiobooks. So, I am throwing in a non-fiction for good measure.

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

It is fair to say that I rarely read anything where almost every historical character is a murderer. That being said, I had never read a deep-dive into the lives and minds of the Irish Republican Army before. When my British husband asked why I was reading such a lengthy exploration of a terrorist organization, I found myself bristling and slightly defensive. In no way am I exonerating the violence and chaos of the IRA; in actuality one of the major plotlines of Say Nothing is the kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 children. Through the devasted lives and legacies of the McConville children, the reader understands the havoc that the IRA wrought upon just one family. Yet, the power of Keefe’s evocative narration is that he manages to tell the very complicated and nuanced history of Northern Ireland with empathy for the principal protagonists. This is true crime at its best.

Photo Courtesy of @social.cut

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