We’re delighted to have Daniel Lazar with us today as part of our ongoing series, The Agent Recommends. We occasionally ask literary agents to share recommendations with you, one novel they represented and one they did not. It’s a fascinating look into their personal and professional reading habits. Enjoy!
First off, thank you for the invitation to share a few recommendations. I’m resisting the urge to foist a dozen titles on you, as there are only 365 days in a year. Indulge me if more than one spill out, though.
A book I love (that I represented):
I’d love to recommend Jennifer McMahon’s latest novel, THE WINTER PEOPLE. Jennifer was one of my first clients– I was an assistant when I read her first manuscript (for Promise Not to Tell); it sat for weeks on my boss’s couch with my charming “Read!! this!! now!!” post-it notes splashed across the cover. Finally, he snapped at me, “If you love it so much, do it yourself!” And so I did. Five books and several NYT bestseller appearances later, I’m still lucky to be representing Jennifer McMahon.
Jennifer’s books explore the ramifications of long-ago crimes on present day characters, usually in the guise unforgettable young girls. She gets better with each book, but when I first read the early of pages THE WINTER PEOPLE, I knew Jennifer had hit a grand slam: here was a story with all her haunting, atmospheric hallmarks– Jennifer’s books truly sizzle with atmosphere!–but writ larger than ever before.
Spanning over a century in West Hall, Vermont, THE WINTER PEOPLE starts in 1908 when Sara Harrison Shea is found murdered in the field behind her house, just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. In present day West Hall, where some people still say Sara’s ghost walks after dark, a young woman named Ruthie (whose family now lives in Sara’s farmhouse) wakes up to find that her mother has vanished. As Ruthie and her little sister, Fawn, search the house for clues, they discover a secret compartment beneath the floor that contains two objects: a gun, and a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary from 1908. This diary tells us the story of a mother skating on the edge of sanity, willing to do whatever she can to bring her daughter back even if it means dabbling in dark and dangerous territory. And in the present day, as Ruthie is sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara’s death, she discovers that she’s not the only one looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.
I remember reading the first draft of THE WINTER PEOPLE. It was actually (ironically?) in July, the middle of a hot, hot summer, and I was at the beach with friends. I had woken up early and was reading the manuscript downstairs, alone, while everyone slept upstairs. When I reached one pivotal scene in the book– I’ll say nothing more except that it involves a knock, knock, knocking — I was so deliciously creeped out by the pages (and by the silence all around me!) that I literally had to put the manuscript down and go distract myself (that knocking!) by making breakfast for the house. Don’t ask me what I made for that breakfast, I can’t recall; but I remember thinking that morning that Jennifer McMahon had written her breakout book. I couldn’t wait to share it with editors, and now I can’t wait to share it with all of you.
When you work in publishing, “real life” reading often takes a back seat. I find that my own “real life” reading is cyclical. Weeks go by immersed only in manuscripts–but then I come up for air to devour a slew of books just for sheer pleasure. 2013 was an especially productive “real life” year of reading; from the sublime (The Luminaries or the Newbery-winning “The One and Only Ivan) to the sexy (Fifty Shades of Grey and Gone Girl—p.s. perhaps that’s a broad definition of sexy?). A standout was Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. What. A. Book.
The novel follows the life of Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 Philadelphia. Her father is a magnate who built his riches importing exotic plants and Alma– encouraged to hungrily educate herself on how the world works–takes after her father and grows into a noted botanist. In Gilbert’s hands, Alma’s fascination with plant life is painted as explosively as if she handled fireworks, not just moss. Alma is described as an odd and odd-looking character, but Gilbert gives us such an intimate and generous insight into her head, that I fell head over heels, even when Alma makes disagreeable choices (and there are several of these!), especially involving her beautiful but unreadable adopted sister. Seriously– how can anyone resist a novel with a too-smart-for-her-own-good heroine who is saddled with a too-pretty-yet-endlessly-
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS begins with Alma’s birth, but swings back into the history of her family throughout the previous century, and eventually follow Alma across the world after her own passions betray her. Literally across the world: the novel takes us from London to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam. Throughout, Gilbert challenges Alma’s thirst for knowledge (for the “signature of all things”) with artists, missionaries, sea captains, scientists and–most importantly– two great loves, each of whom change Alma’s life in ways big and small. And the story of Alma’s life is intertwined with the real history of the scientific community’s growth throughout the 1800’s, and of women’s roles—often uncredited— inside that explosive growth. You close this magnificent book marveling at how the Age of Enlightenment, and how many women, real life versions of Alma Whittaker, impacted our understanding of the world around us, from the dirt to the stars.