Some marvelous novels vigorously refute the idea that so-called "literary fiction," the serious stuff, must be a tedious chore to read, like a bad-tasting medicine whose healing properties are somehow confirmed by the fact that you want to spit it out, first chance you get.
Let's start with Penelope Lively, because her new novel is such a spellbinding surprise. The 79-year-old author has been turning out great novels with Pez-dispenser efficiency for decades now, including "Moon Tiger," which won the 1987 Man Booker Prize, and personal favorites such as "The Road to Lichfield" (1977), "According to Mark" (1984) and "Family Album" (2009).
When a writer is as good as Lively, for as long as she has been that way, a certain complacency surely sets in among her readers.
"Of course this is wonderful," you catch yourself murmuring. "Why wouldn't it be?"
The same fate must befall other exquisitely gifted literary craftswomen with notable work ethics such as Alice McDermott and Anne Tyler. Another day, another extraordinary novel.
Yet "How It All Began" is a revelation. While Lively's novels always feature intelligent people who use their brains to negotiate their way through a complex and sometimes perilous world, "How It All Began" is also about feeling. Lively creates one of the most authentic and moving love affairs in contemporary literature. It makes the plight of those sullen, simpering teens in the "Twilight" series look anemic and dull.
Charlotte Rainsford, a retired teacher, is mugged. That act — done anonymously, leaving Charlotte with a broken hip — initiates a run of contingent events that affect Charlotte's daughter, her daughter's husband, her daughter's employer, and on and on. Lively reminds us of the earnest, obtuse fumbling that constitutes most of what happens in a human life, the coincidences and accidents that are as much in charge as are the explicit decisions.
Charlotte, the narrator explains, "is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are essential foodstuff, who could starve without."
Compare this nuanced portrait of an older woman with an earlier depiction — the title character in Stewart O'Nan's dreary and insultingly one-dimensional novel, "Emily, Alone" (2011) — to appreciate Lively's achievement.
Charlotte is old, yes, but that only means her perspective is broader: "You are on the edge of things now," she reminds herself, "clinging to life's outer rim. You have this comet trail of your own lived life, sparks from which arrive in your head all the time. …"
Among the ways Charlotte chooses to spend her convalescence is tutoring a middle-aged immigrant named Anton, who possesses "large, dark brown eyes that to Charlotte are interestingly foreign; these are not homely English eyes, they are eyes from elsewhere, central European eyes, eyes with forests in them, and Ruritanian castles. …"
He can speak English, but reading it is still a challenge. Thus he and Charlotte set to work — and that, like every small twist in the road in this superbly well-plotted novel, sheds ever-widening concentric rings of consequences.
To detail even minor aspects of the plot twists in Jane Harris's "Gillespie and I" would necessitate an additional crime: You'd want to kill me. So delectably well has Harris constructed this psychological thriller that even the slightest hint of what's to come would spoil things.
I will say only this: The year is 1888, and Harriet Baxter, a solitary woman with a comfortable inherited income, decides to leave her London home to attend the International Exhibition in Glasgow, Scotland. There she becomes friendly with Ned Gillespie, a young Scottish artist, and his lively family. Harriet narrates the story, and we come to admire her good intentions, her selfless devotion to the needy clan. Soon, however, a horrendous tragedy occurs, forcing the reader to consider some unsavory possibilities.
Harris masterfully retrieves the world of late 19th-century Glasgow — the fog-swaddled streets, the narrow staircases in crowded apartment houses that are "redolent of many gravies." The novel is long, but never feels that way; each scene is like a landing on one of those steep, endless staircases. While you climb, you may cringe and shudder — but you do not, you cannot, stop climbing.
These novels are eloquent, engaging reminders of the power of fiction, of how it both sustains and entertains.
"He rattled through the darkness, reading": That is Lively's description of Anton, so eager to learn English that he opens a book every chance he gets, including his daily commute on the London subway.
And so it is with many of us. The world is strange and confusing and mysterious and often disappointing — and we rattle through the darkness, reading.
JULIA KELLER is the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.