Undercover: 'Sorrow'

This book, which truly delivers sadness, puts publisher Braddock Avenue Books on par with a major publishing house.

Some authors like to be coy when titling their work. Aimee Bender’s "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" could be an instruction manual for depressive pastry chefs. Thomas Pynchon’s "The Crying of Lot 49" is a veritable ode to inscrutability. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I first saw Tao Lin’s "Richard Yates" only to learn that it wasn’t a biography of the great writer. Catherine Gammon does not play those kinds of games. Her new novel is called "Sorrow," and sorrow is what she delivers.

Anita Palatino is a young woman living with her mother in a rundown New York City apartment. Anita survived years of childhood sexual abuse, but she finally has reached a breaking point. The corrosiveness of what she had suffered, her near inability to connect with other people and her virtually somnambulant existence all detonate as a result of one violent act. To disclose more about the plot would be a disservice to the reader. Suffice it to say that Gammon understands the benefits of a heavy dose of suspense.

For much of "Sorrow," I felt I was reading a masterpiece. Gammon is that good. She takes the reader by the hand and walks him or her through Anita’s consciousness, burrowing so deep into the character that you can almost hear her heart beating.

"Sorrow" is not perfect, though. There are moments when the narrative stops unnecessarily and tries to explain itself; for example, Anita receives a long letter late in the story by someone who attempts to smooth over a plot detail that feels a little too deus ex machina. This hurts the momentum of the book, which has been so masterful in its depiction of Anita’s world that the reader would surely forgive the absence of certain explanations.

Nevertheless, "Sorrow" is one of the finest novels I have read this year. Gammon’s control and sensitivity are wonders. This book puts publisher Braddock Avenue Books on par with a major publishing house like Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "Sorrow" is the announcement of a major new voice in fiction.

(Braddock Avenue Books, $16; braddockavenuebooks.com)


Mason Radkoff likes to describe his debut novel, "The Heart of June," as a coming-of-middle-age story. It’s an appropriately wry characterization — one that understates the deep reservoirs of emotion on display in this accomplished work.

Walt Farnham, once a college history professor, is a contractor of great ability, yet he has little to no discipline when it comes to completing a job. He lives above the garage of the house he previously owned, a residence that now belongs to his ex-wife and her husband. Walt tools around in a broken-down truck, which leaks oil wherever he goes. Most notably, he cares for Hardwick, the estate of Miss June Bonwell Creighton, an aging heiress whose family once hobnobbed with the Fricks and Carnegies. Miss June raised Walt after his father, who also looked after the estate, died at an early age.

Following years of watching Walt float through life without direction, Miss June sets him the challenge of finally completing a serious project by restoring her grand parlor, which felt the blows of a fire surrounded by whispered rumors. Walt needs to grow up.

It’s a pure delight to delve into Radkoff’s characters. His dialogue is crisp and filled with the jokey back-and-forth indicative of people who have known each other for years. Much like Richard Russo’s beautifully layered, heartfelt novels about small-town lives and the little victories therein, Radkoff’s "The Heart of June" is a book you’ll want to return to again and again, just to spend a little more time with the people within its pages.

(Braddock Avenue Books, $16.95; braddockavenuebooks.com)


Categories: Things To Do