The Reading List is a sweet, simple and tender story about the power words have to heal and the joys that books can bring. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s just the right sort of cheese – like a toasty sandwich filled with melting gouda.
Mukesh is a widower of two years, still in mourning for his wife, Naina. He feels a bit schlubby as he tries to move through life without her; he clings to routine, goes to temple and worries about his granddaughter Priya. His three daughters check in on him worriedly, and among their mother’s things, they find one of Naina’s library books – The Time-Traveler’s Wife - and give it to Mukesh to return. Naina loved reading, and her connection to books had always been important to her. Mukesh reads the book to feel close to his wife again and, inspired to continue that connection, he decides to head to the library for more fuel.
Teenage Aleisha works at the Harrow Library, the place Naina took out her last books. Alesha would rather be anywhere than the library – she has been nudged into taking the job by her brother, Aiden, an avid reader who also works there. For Aiden, the library and books are a haven from a difficult home life; for Aleisha, the library is a job and an escape from their fragile, agoraphobic mother, which has led to her developing anxiety issues.
While re-shelving books on the same day Mukesh arrives to return TTW, Aleisha finds a slip of paper hidden in a volume of To Kill a Mockingbird – a list featuring eight books, headed “Just in Case You Need It.” Aleisha shares the list with Mukesh, and together they read the listed books, discussing them as they go. As Mukesh’s life begins to open to the rest of the world once more, Aleisha begins to gather the strength to become her best self. A warm friendship soon spans the generations, but when tragedy strikes, will their reading project – and the friendship - last?
The Reading List is a bittersweet story that explores grief, loss, suicide, handling mental illness and anxiety, and the difficulty of bridging the generation gap. Books can’t solve everything, but they can be worth all of the balm in Gilead, and here especially they’re soothing in a world where no amount of kind words or kindness can ever cure deep wounds.
Aleisha reads as appropriately teenagerish and Mukesh and his lovely family are wonderful to spend time with. The friendship between the pair is a terrific anchor to the story, and watching them both grow – no matter how many times I have seen plots about intergenerational friendship – was gratifying. Sometimes even the most well-trodden plot will work in capable hands, and Adams is good at her art.
The book’s weakest points are those when we jump away from Mukesh and Aleisha and visit with other folks who patronize the library. I found the inclusions of these chapters mildly amusing but truly distracting and unnecessary when the main thrust of the novel was so compelling
The Reading List is warm – cozy, gentle, real and very tender. You can tell Adams loves books. Hopefully it will inspire a similar adoration for readers worldwide.
Note: The story contains an off-page suicide.
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