Lee English – American Rust
Philipp Meyer’s American Rust was an interesting, if not entirely satisfying, debut and it isn’t a patch on his second novel, The Son. But he draws some characters with loving detail. Lee English is a woman who has escaped the Pennsylvania steel town where she grew up, but when she finds herself drawn back there by tragic events, the lure of the past is a palpable thing. It’s not the most original character in the world and she’s in a relatively small portion of the book, but Meyer takes us right inside her soul to see the vulnerable parts of the hard-edged woman.
Isobel Fairfax – Human Croquet
Isobel Fairfax is a girl caught up in mysteries at every turn. The mysterious disappearance of her mother when Isobel was so young that she no longer remembers her mother; a strange tendency to slip from the present back to Elizabethan times for brief, strange experiences; a brutally bad Christmas day that she can’t seem to stop living over and over again. But she tells her story with wit, charm and as much pluck as a young lady can muster in the face of such bizarre and haunting events and her sheer, unflagging strength is fascinating and also perhaps a clue to . . . well, I’ll leave a few surprises for you.
Audrey Griffin – Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Audrey Griffin is a compelling side character in this brilliant comic novel by Maria Semple, a high-strung, neurotic, Christian helicopter mom driven to distraction by the absurd antics of the main character, the titular Bernadette. In the sections of the book told from Griffin’s perspective, her voice is pitch perfect, capturing perfectly the rhythms of the Audrey Griffins of the world; but when she reveals surprising depth near the end of the book, it somehow feels perfect.
Ifemelu – Americanah
I found Americanah to be a disappointing novel from Chimimanda Adichie, especially as a follow-up to her epic Half of a Yellow Sun; but the main character, a Nigerian woman who flees her poverty stricken life in Africa to come to America, only to find herself more and more out of joint in a culture she can’t seem to understand, is compelling and interesting.
Bunty Lennox – Behind the Scenes at the Museum
Bunty’s the deliriously unhinged mother of Ruby Lennox, the main character of Kate Atkinson’s debut novel. She’s a frustrating character, frustrating in her realness and in her refusal to cohere into anything reasonable. But as the book progresses, more and more details are revealed and we come to know this woman very well indeed. She’s both a figure of absolute hilarity and deep tragedy and, as such, she’s, if not the main character, perhaps the central one of the novel, which can be described the same way.
Ma – Tenth of December
George Saunders’ Tenth of December is a masterful collection of short stories. The best is called, simply, Home and it details the travails of a soldier newly returned from the Middle East, struggling to reintegrate into normal life. His mother, identified only as Ma, speaks to the story as a whole in that she’s both hilariously funny and painfully awkward. Her scenes are funny, painful and sad.
Cassie Maddox – The Likeness
Tana French’s characters are always finding themselves trapped by their past; in The Likeness, she focuses on a supporting character from her previous book, In the Woods. Cassie Maddox was an undercover officer once and when she was, she created a false identity: Lexie Madison. Now, years later, a woman’s body has been found; the woman looks exactly like Cassie Maddox and she’s carrying ID that identifies her as Lexie Madison. Cassie finds herself thrown back into the past in an exploration of identity, truth, & lies as she tries to discover how a woman that never existed came to be murdered.
Grace Poe – American Rust
Grace is probably the character in American Rust that’s the most hopelessly trapped, the most miserable, the most despairing, the worst off. And in American Rust, that’s quite an achievement. A single mother dealing with the fall-out after her son finds himself involved in a murder, she’s a character of real pathos, but she never feels less than the simple woman she is. She isn’t intelligent or articulate or even particularly interesting, outside of her horrible circumstance, but the way Meyer delves into her deep, deep pain is marvelous.
Mary Russell – The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Or On the Segregation of the Queen
Mary Russell is a likable, intelligent, awkward protagonist; she’s a young girl who suddenly finds herself embroiled in a mystery involving an aged Sherlock Holmes, who has retired to keep bees at a farm near the one where she lives. She narrates the book and Laurie King has her voice down perfectly. She’s a teenager that values intelligence over looks; for that alone, she’s worthy of comment. King gets at the emotional turmoil of a girl thrown into an altogether strange relationship and an altogether strange circumstance really well and the central relationship, of Russell and Holmes, is well drawn and compelling.
Marcia Steinberg – Nemesis
Marcia Steinberg is a supporting character in Nemesis, the girlfriend of the main character. Her struggles mainly revolve around the difficulty she has in understanding the complicated main character and his strange obsession with self-sacrifice. Often, the main character himself doesn’t even catch the struggles, so they exist sometimes between the lines, but we as the reader can seem them clearly. It’s a very small role, but a good one.
BONUS: Worst Female Character
Celia Bowen – The Night Circus
The Night Circus already took my worst writing award; Celia is one of the main characters, a young woman raised by a wizard in order that she may compete in a vague contest of some kind with a young man raised by another wizard and thus determine the fate of a magical circus. Of course, she falls in love with the young man and moons about the book in about the most annoying fashion possible. This may be the least self-determining character I encountered all year. Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!