NUTSHELL, by Ian McEwan. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 197 pp., $24.95.
The premise of an in utero narrator, listening in horror as his mother plots with her lover to murder the baby’s father seems like it could produce a truly asinine book. This isn’t it. Slim, gorgeously written, full of laughs and suspense, “Nutshell” is delicious fun from Ian McEwan — prizewinning author of “Amsterdam,” “Atonement” and other novels — at his most entertaining and Shakespearean.
The fetus in question is an oenophile, his palate for placental refreshments sharpened by his mother’s relentless swilling. When he hears her refuse a second glass of a “joyous, blushful Pinot Noir,” covering her glass with “a priggish hand,” he has it in mind “to reach for [his] oily cord, as one might a velvet rope in a well-staffed country house, and pull sharply for service. What ho! Another round here for us friends.”
This old soul also eagerly ingests podcasts via his mother’s earbuds, and holds forth on climate change, politics and the daily news, on “fresh-bearded young men with beautiful skin and long guns on the Boulevard Voltaire gazing into the beautiful disbelieving eyes of their own generation.” In his darkest hour, the argument against suicide the baby delivers to himself is to be photocopied in case of emergency.
McEwan’s ravishing prose combines with a full-speed-ahead mystery plot that makes it hard to read as slowly as you’d like. You could read it twice.
LONER, by Teddy Wayne. Simon & Schuster, 203 pp., $26.
Teddy Wayne won over readers with his second novel, “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine,” a dark sendup of modern celebrity culture with a Justin Bieber-esque narrator, funny and spot-on.
Here we have the dark and the spot-on without the comedy. The narrator of “Loner” is in no way cute, though he, too, is brilliantly ventriloquized, with an unmistakable voice and vocabulary. David Federman is scary, and he gets scarier with every chapter.
He starts out as your average nerd, his class’s sole Harvard-bound senior. But on campus in Cambridge he becomes obsessed with Veronica Morgan Wells — she of the “gazelle legs encased in dark jeans,” “lissome shoulders,” and hair the color of “a newly minted penny unsullied by commerce.” Immediately he begins to stalk her, signing up for the same classes, doing a full internet sweep, angling for sightings — and conducting a relationship with her roommate mainly in order to steal a piece of Veronica’s bathrobe for unsavory purposes.
Just when you think you can’t stand him anymore — nor can you put the book down — the explosive ending hits. “Loner” is a fascinating study of how young people turn to anti-social behavior. “You can’t go wrong just being yourself,” his mother tells David when she drops him off at college. Wayne wants us to know that you can.
LEAVE ME, by Gayle Forman. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 343 pp., $26.95.
“Would it surprise you to learn that one of the top fantasies for women is a prolonged hospital stay?” asks the nurse who has come to check on 44-year-old Maribeth Klein after surgery.
No, Maribeth is not surprised. She has four-year-old twins, a full-time job, a preoccupied husband, money troubles, a baby-sitter who won’t do dishes and an even less competent mother. When she suffers a heart attack at work, she tries to keep checking off her to-do list — until she finds herself in the hospital having a cardiac bypass.
Unfortunately, her hospital stay is not long enough. As soon as she gets home, both kids come down with head lice.
Mothers the world over will recognize that seething mass of black bugs for what it is: the last straw.
Here, Forman’s adult debut — she’s the bestselling YA author of “If I Stay” — takes a left turn. Maribeth packs her bags, withdraws $25,000 in cash and boards a train to Pittsburgh.
Perhaps this is also one of the top fantasies for women.
In Pittsburgh, Maribeth begins a quest for her birth mother (she, too, was abandoned — more than once, as it turns out) and makes a few friends, among them her new cardiologist. Unfortunately, the novel does not quite live up to its transgressive premise, neither fully believable nor interestingly wicked. It reads like YA for grown-ups — and for many readers that will be just fine.