Books for a Long Plane Ride

An old friend texted me out of the blue a few weeks ago. We live in different cities, so we don’t see each other often, but last summer we were both in New York for several months, and I lent her some of my favorite recent reads. A month ago, she was traveling and had several long plane rides. She liked my recommendations last summer, did I have any more for her?

I tried to keep my reads within the last year (with an exception for a series). And two books that I recently read and wanted to recommend aren’t yet out, but are listed below.

EDUCATED by Tara Westover- This memoir had been on my radar for a while before it was released in February, and I’d heard from a number of readers I trust that it was a gripping read. The general premise is almost hard to believe–a young woman from a survivalist family in Idaho, whose homeschooled education has been largely ignored, teaches herself enough math, science, and English to take the SAT and get into BYU. From there, she goes on to get graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge while struggling to reconcile her new intellectual life with her upbringing. I found the latter half–her (fraught) assimilation into higher education–most interesting, but Westover’s writing about the rural landscape around her and the complicated dynamics of her family is worth the read alone.

THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin- I read this over my holiday break–another book that had been on my radar for a long time. Another startling premise (this one fictional): four siblings visit a fortune teller on the Lower East Side and learn the dates they will die, with huge implications for how they live their lives. I fell hard for the Golds. Simon and Klara, the youngest siblings, move to San Francisco in the ’80s and find work as a dancer and magician, respectively. The elder two siblings, Daniel and Varya, finds respectable jobs in science. I was most drawn to Simon and Klara, younger and more vivid in the novel itself, but I wonder if that’s more a symptom of my age and experience than anything else. This is a spellbinding novel about fate, purpose, and how to live a meaningful, engaged life, whether or not you know exactly how much time you have.

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman- The joy in this novel is in how it all unfolds for the reader. I have to confess to have mixed feelings about this one; I loved it all the way until the end, when one twist made me throw the book across the room. But the read was good enough to make it on here. It’s hard to talk about this book without giving much away; Eleanor Oliphant lives a very ordinary, solitary life (with the exception of phone calls from her “mummy”), that is never better than “fine,” until she falls in love with a musician who doesn’t know she exists and meets a new friend from IT. The plot doesn’t sound like a page-turner until you realize that the real story is Eleanor’s mysterious past. I had some doubts until I got about 40 pages in, and it slowly dawned on me–oh, this is going to be messed* up.

*Fine, I used a different term, but my parents read this blog

CRAZY RICH ASIANS Series by Kevin Kwan- My CRAZY RICH ASIANS (and CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND and RICH PEOPLE PROBLEMS) obsession has been well documented on this blog. These books are perfect plane fare: funny, smart, jet-setting. They’re not slim tomes, so one volume might last you one cross-country flight, but if you’re headed to Asia, I’d go ahead and bring the whole set.

BONUS: The two books I wanted to recommend but are not yet out:

THE LOST QUEEN by Signe Pike (pub date: Sept. 4, 2018): Full disclosure, I work on this one, and when I describe it to people I always start out the same way: Did you know that Merlin of Arthurian legend had a twin sister? This is historical fiction set in sixth century Scotland–I time I’ll admit I’m not particularly passionate about, except here–about Languoreth, the twin sister of the man who served as the historical inspiration for Merlin. The children of a powerful chieftain, Languoreth went on to become a powerful queen in her own life, but has gone mostly unnoticed in history.

SOCIAL CREATURE by Tara Isabella Burton (pub date: June 5, 2018): I’ve been recommending this book to almost everyone in New York. Pitched as a Mr. Ripley for the digital age, it delivers exactly that. It’s effervescent, beguiling, almost aspirational until it isn’t. The New York references (some lightly disguised) make you feel like you’re in on some inside joke. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read recently.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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For the past few months, the entertainment that has given me the greatest amount of joy has been Crazy Rich Asians. I consumed this trilogy like some terrible addiction (oh, we’re not talking about my caffeine problem?) and I’ve been powerless to stop babbling about the series in every social situation.

I remember reading about the first (eponymous) book in the trilogy when it was first published, but I had just graduated college and had lived in a house of foreign students and felt I knew everything I really needed to know about people with money to burn. Over the years, I heard from every possible source that the Crazy Rich Asians and its follow-up China Rich Girlfriend, were hilarious, smart, and ridiculously fun. But I’m known for being stubborn.

The final installment, Rich People Problems, came out in May, and the media attention it received finally pushed me over the edge. I bought a copy of Crazy Rich Asians and decided to give it a shot.

With books I love, I tend to have a moment where I’m “in it.” I’m invested. The moment I know that I’m going to savor what comes next, the moment I know that–soon–I won’t be able to put the book down.

With Crazy Rich Asians, that moment happened at the end of the prologue. I started the book on a week night, so I tried to ration the book at first (you know, so I could still do important things like go to work)–a chapter with breakfast one morning, another before bed the next night–but I read the majority of the novel is one large gulp on a slow Saturday.

The book reads like the best gossip you’ve ever heard about people you like (Astrid, Nick & Rachel) and hate (Edison, Colette) in equal measure. This is a series that takes you inside the salons of Paris couturiers and the estates of secretive billionaires. Every book features the society something (wedding, gala, funeral) of the year–each more over the top than the last. I couldn’t help but root for these people. Money doesn’t always free you; often, it chains you.

Crazy Rich Asians follows Rachel Chu, an American woman of Chinese descent, and her boyfriend, Nicholas Young–who, unbeknownst to her–comes from one of the wealthiest families in Singapore (actually, in all of Asia). Nick’s family is so rich they don’t appear on any list of rich families. Rachel and Nick are both professors, and Nick convinces Rachel to spend the summer with him in Asia, where he’s preparing for his best friend Colin Khoo’s wedding. Nick seems to be Singapore’s most eligible bachelor, and his family–particularly his mother Eleanor–has big plans for him. Plans that don’t include Rachel.

In China Rich Girlfriend, Nick and Rachel prepare for their wedding. Neither of them has spoken to his family since the engagement Nick’s mother and wealthy grandmother Su Yi tried to stop. Rachel, meanwhile, has grown curious about her biological father, and it turns out that Eleanor’s meddling will lead her straight to him.

In the final installment, Rich People Problems, Nick returns to Singapore after his grandmother’s health takes a turn for the worse. Her illness forces the family into a panic as everyone speculates about the contents of her will. With Su Yi estranged from her favorite grandson (Nick), several cousins jockey for position, hoping to inherit her grand estate in the heart of Singapore, which is worth billions.

Although Nick and Rachel provide a throughline for the series, I was equally (if not more) entranced by a number of other characters whose POVs are included. Astrid Leong, Nick’s favorite cousin, shops at the finest couture houses in Paris and mingles with nobles but lives in a comparatively small apartment in Singapore. Her home is a concession to her husband, Michael, an entrepreneur who insists on paying for their lifestyle himself (despite the fact that Astrid is worth hundreds of millions). When things go south with Michael, Astrid pines for her ex-fiancĂ© Charlie, whose “new money” was looked down upon by her parents a decade ago. Astrid and Nick’s cousin Edison Cheng, whose insecurity about his wealth and his obsession with keeping up appearances (which involves forcing his wife and children to wear matching outfits) provides much of the series’ comic relief. And never underestimate the scheming of Eleanor Young, who has never felt fully accepted by her husband’s family and has all of her hopes pinned on Nick to inherit the bulk of his grandmother Su Yi’s estate–as long as he does exactly what’s expected of him.

When I finished Rich People Problems last week, I put the book down and thought “I would happily follow these people throughout the rest of their lives.” Three books in a series felt like too few, and I can’t remember the last time I thought that. I suppose there’s the movie to console me next year. But Kevin Kwan, if you’re reading, I’ll preorder books four, five, and six.