As usual, storytellers seek to make meaning during a confusing (and, for some, devastating) time. Just prior to COVID, the prescient Emma Donohue wrote The Pull of the Stars, her story of the 1918 flu pandemic set in a Dublin maternity ward. In 2021, Gary Shteyngart offered Our Country Friends, a 2020 take on The Decameron, a 14th century book by Giovanni Boccaccio set during a pandemic. More recently, popular author Jodi Picoult gave us Wish You Were Here, a look back at early COVID lockdowns that includes those most isolated (in the Galápagos Islands) and those most at risk (a New York City hospital). All three of these page-turners are worth a summer read, as are the powerful works highlighted next.
The Maiden of All Our Desires
Arcade Publishing, 336 pages | Published February 15, 2022
In 14th-century Europe, an isolated group of nuns and their deeply flawed priest struggle with the conflict between protecting themselves from a deadly plague and their call to welcome the stranger. The Maiden of All Our Desires sheds light on questions of our own time, ranging from religious authority to survival during a pandemic, while entertaining us with eccentric characters, stories of forbidden love (and sex) and mysteries that keep us turning the pages.
Harper, 400 pages | Published November 9, 2021
The haunting of Birchbark Books by a recently deceased (and truly annoying) customer is the jumping-off point for Louise Erdrich’s story of love and complex relationships, racial reckoning in the time of George Floyd and running a small business, all in the time of COVID. Erdrich is a member of the Ojibwa Tribe and an indie bookstore owner in Minneapolis, and she brilliantly weaves fictional stories and lively characters to create the laugh-out-loud hilarious and deadly serious world of The Sentence.
Alfred A. Knopf, 258 pages | Published March 22, 2022
French Braid isn’t COVID fiction in the most obvious sense, but it is during the final chapters, as a family shelters-in-place, that the characters grow into the best and truest versions of themselves. Anne Tyler fans will appreciate her trademark features — a messy family and quirky yet endearing characters, brilliantly rendered, and simple slices of daily living that sum up to a deeper story of how humans come to know each other … and themselves.