Pop Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

You probably imagine that my home library burgeons with dusty classics and is overrun by cats and dogs. And you would not be completely wrong. The shelves are full of Victorian novels and Latin poetry. Yet I am also a fan of pop culture, and have resolved this year to read more pop fiction.

In many ways we feel more distant from the culture (what is left of it) during the pandemic, even though we have Zoom and live-streaming. And so I want to know, What do people read for fun, or more important, What is pushed on them?

After consulting national book club selections, I picked three titles, the first published in 2019, the other two in 2020. Two are fantasy novels and one is a best-seller that doubles as literary fiction. Oddly, it was the pop literary novel I didn’t finish!

Are these books worth reading? Yes, in different ways.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, a Barnes and Noble Book Club pick. The popular Y.A. writer Leigh Bardugo’s first adult novel is a page-turner. The heroine, Alex Stern, a lost-soul drop-out and drug user in L.A., is the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. She wakes up in the hospital, with a very dubious future: she is a suspect in the crime. And then Yale recruits her because of her ability to see ghosts (a long, complicated story). Her main job is to join Lethe, one of the magical secret societies at Yale, and monitor it for the Dean so the magic will not spill over and contaminate New Haven. She is, needless to say, trapped in the Ivy League and resentful of the rich students: she is also unprepared academically, and because of her Lethe activities, has little time for homework. This smart, deftly-written novel is character-driven, with sharp, witty dialogue. You will empathize with Alex, who makes a niche for herself at Yale, but not without enduring tragedy and loss.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, a Good Morning America Book Club pick. This is an enjoyable middlebrow read, driven by, of all things, philosophy and quantum physics. The down-and-out heroine, Nora Seed, takes an overdose, but somewhere between life and death wakes up in the Midnight Library, presided over by Miss Elm, her elementary school librarian. Every book in the library contains an alternate life for Nora, and she is supposed to find one that suits her. As she samples many lives, we become afraid for her. The problem with the book? Haig’s simple style is adequate, but a bit dull. Nonetheless, the idea for this self-help book in the form of a novel is intriguing.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. A Barnes & Noble Book Club pick and a Readers’ Digest Book Club pick. Donoghue is a powerful writer, but this slight novel, set in Dublin in 1919 in a maternity ward during the Spanish flu pandemic, is disappointing. I admit, I picked it up to read about the flu epidemic, and had no idea it was set in a maternity ward for patients with influenza. Even the intelligent observations of Julia Power, a nurse and midwife at work under trying, unsanitary conditions, could not get me into the book. Alas, like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.” I didn’t finish this.

Have you read any good pop fiction lately? What do you recommend? And if you’re a snob about pop fiction, let me know, because I’ve been there. I’m trying to find my balance in the culture.

2 thoughts on “Pop Fiction in the Twenty-First Century”

  1. Have you read Natasha Pulley? I adore The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (2015), The Bedlam Stacks (2017), and The Future of Pepperharrow (2020). Pulley has a new novel coming out in May: The Kingdoms. Her books are very smart historical fantasies that reward rereading.

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