Plot: A world-weary soccer coach struggles with temptation: Like the prodigal, he's squandered everything before coming to Christ. A high-school sex-ed teacher advocates condom distribution at school and can't abide the coach praying with her daughter.
Gist: Tensions simmer between these two characters and other liberals and evangelicals. Perrotta seems to suggest that neither Jesus nor dogmatic liberalism is the answer. He gets it half right. (Caution: sex and strong language.)
Plot: Oscar is "a fat sci-fi-reading nerd" whose life is characterized by lust, rejection, escape, and depression. What's behind his misery is a curse visited on his family because his grandfather and mother resisted long-time Dominican dictator Trujillo.
Gist: The curse is relentless and no Savior is in sight, but lots of raunch is. Díaz tells his story in a mix of English, Spanish, and Spanglish. The brutishly crude narrative style hides some tender emotion, just as Oscar's fat hides his nerdy, Tolkien-loving soul.
Plot: Stanford-educated Liz is married, the mother of two, and living her ideal life. Childhood friend Sarabeth is unmarried and barely making it financially, emotionally, and socially.
Gist: When Liz's 15-year-old daughter-whose inner thoughts are obscenity-sprinkled bits of self-loathing-attempts suicide, Liz, her husband Brody, and Sarabeth all retreat into fear, guilt, anger, or isolation. Packer captures well pain and suffering, but her hopeful ending, especially in the absence of any spiritual understanding, does not ring true.
Plot: Russo's sprawling novel takes place in a decaying town in upstate New York. The town has a river that runs red from tannery chemicals that have sickened its residents. If cancer doesn't kill them, alcohol or violence does-but a few escape.
Gist: Despite being a lonely and friendless child, the novel's central character, Lou Lynch, lives his adult life as a memorial to the father he loves. The book has significant things to say about the nature of life, family, dreams, and happiness. (Some language and sexual themes.)
A fifth best-seller is Brock Clarke's artfully titled An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (Algonquin Books, 2007). Narrator Sam Pulsifer, born a "bumbler," has a life plaint: "It was an accident." He accidentally burns down the Emily Dickinson House as a teen, serves time in prison, puts his past behind, and then sees his suburban life fall apart when someone starts torching other writers' homes. As suspicion falls on Sam, he struggles to clear his name and salvage the family he deceived.
An Arsonist's Guide (some bad language) is a tragedy in the classic sense. A man with an idyllic life has a destructive flaw-in Sam's case, his inability to tell the truth. The novel is also funny, with gentle mocking of the human condition and flashes of insight. ("Sometimes the lies you tell are less frightening than the loneliness you might feel if you stopped telling them.")
Clarke's novel is a story about "hearts with holes in them, holes that are in various stages of excavation and filling." It shows the inadequacy of humanity-the way words, love, and the stories we tell to explain ourselves all fall short.