I read these books in December, before there was a COVID-19 vaccine, before there was an end to the endless presidential election, and they were just what I needed. Lighter than my usual fare but entertaining, they were both more complex than a rom-com, less demanding than a serious novel.
"The Bookshop of Second Chances" by Jackie Fraser (Ballantine, 438 pages, $17) is a pleasant story, steeped in atmosphere and centered on a sensible, middle-aged protagonist.
After 20 years of marriage, Thea's husband has left her for one of her closest friends and, days later, Thea is laid off from her job. Conveniently, an elderly uncle has left her his book-filled house somewhere along the Scottish coast, and she seizes the opportunity to head north. Her plan is to get the house in shape, sell it, and figure out the rest of her life.
What she finds in the Scottish village is a charming ancient house that is now hers, and two handsome brothers who hate each other. One is confident and cheerful, the other smoldering and surly.
The confident brother is landed gentry and wants to buy Thea's house, which abuts his property. The surly brother runs the local bookstore, and he wants nothing to do with her (or, really, with anyone). Why the brothers hate each other involves, of course, a woman.
Fraser's novel is a pleasant read, primarily because of her unusual protagonist. Thea is not a silly young thing; she's not looking for love but is absorbed with the grittier problem of figuring out the second half of her life.
Many readers have a weakness for a book set in a bookstore, or a book steeped in the British countryside (or is it just me?). This one is sturdy. Fraser doesn't portray the Scottish village as twee (the weather is mostly terrible) and she doesn't allow Thea easy answers to the many difficult questions she faces.
Kate Russo's debut novel, "Super Host" (Putnam, 362 pages, $27), centers on a man named Bennett Driscoll who was once a star in the art world and who now, at midlife, is going through the proverbial crisis. Divorced, trying to work out a delicate relationship with his grown daughter, pretty much broke and reduced to renting his London mansion to short-term guests while he lives in the carriage house, Bennett is an appealingly sad-sacky protagonist.
Once famous for painting nudes, he began painting still lifes of fruits and vegetables when his daughter was born. That it didn't feel right to paint naked women once he had a wife and daughter might be in his favor as a man, but is quite deadly to his career.
As "Super Host" progresses, we meet a series of people who rent his mansion, and suddenly Bennett is awash in women.
Each tenant is troubled in her own way — Alicia, the first one, is just an overall mess; Emma, the second one, is obsessive-compulsive and paranoid (and definitely the most entertaining of the bunch); and the sexy Kirstie, the last one, is fleeing an abusive marriage and seems up for just about anything.
As Bennett navigates this very tricky world of relationships — including a romance with a waitress he might or might not remain faithful to — he begins to paint again. Russo, the daughter of novelist Richard Russo, is a visual artist herself, and she handles Bennett's relationship problems and his artistic resurgence confidently, with wit, wisdom and humor.
For a few days last winter, these novels succeeded in taking my mind off both the pandemic and presidential politics, and that was no small task.