Book Club: Five books that helped me escape in 2020

Our resident book aficionado weighs in on the page-turners that saved her from a tumultuous year.
This is a picture of a stack of books on a table.


By Hannah Larrew


I read more last year than I’ve ever read before, and because of that I grew more than I thought possible.


One of the first things I do at the start of every New Year is set my reading goals for the months ahead. With planning comes a reflection period, thinking about which books made the biggest impact on me the previous year. I let these stories inspire and guide me to my new paper vacation destinations.


2020 was a lot of things, but lacking in good, meaningful stories wasn’t one of them. I read more last year than I’ve ever read before, and because of that I grew more than I thought possible. As a reader, writer and student, I’m grateful to authors who share the insides of their minds and hearts with us, gifting us with places to call home when we feel lost. Which, I think I speak for many when I say feeling lost and confused has been a default state throughout the past year.


Normally I’m a nonfiction gal, but this year I only have one autobiographical work in my top five. Novels stole the show for me. So, after careful thought, these are my top five favorite books of 2020 and lines from each that simply knocked me out:


"Memorial” by Bryan Washington


“That loving a person means letting them change when they need to. And letting them go when they need to. And that doesn’t make them any less of a home. Just maybe not one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn’t diminish the love. It just changes forms.”


“Memorial” is one of those stories that sneaks up on you. The writing is quiet and conversational, softly taking your hand and leading you into an emotional tornado. Washington sets every scene perfectly, offering several moments of realization throughout the book that brought me to tears. About a young, interracial gay couple at a crossroads in their relationship, “Memorial” ultimately decodes the meaning of the term “home.” Is it a person or a place? Is it a feeling or is it built into our surroundings? Does it depend on timing? Washington answers these questions through thoughtful dialog and unpacking the relationships between his characters. The story takes us through a wide range of issues, including class, and the racial and cultural differences between our two protagonists. “Memorial” left me breathless and with plenty to think about.


Novels stole the show for me.


"The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett


“You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.”


“The Vanishing Half” spans across decades and generations, telling the story of light-skinned black twins, Desiree and Stella Vignes. As teenagers, they escape the confines of their small hometown of Mallard, Louisiana, to start new lives. We follow the twins to New Orleans, where Stella meets and marries a white man, leaves her sister behind, and secretly passes as a white woman in a new city. Meanwhile, Desiree eventually ends up back in their small hometown, living with her black daughter, taking care of her mother. Above all else, this is a story about racial identity, alongside the ways in which our culture creates a person’s introspective views of themselves. Bennett gives readers a clear image of what a black woman’s life looks like compared to a white woman’s and it’s sad, infuriating, and thought-provoking. This is a novel that that pushed me down a rabbit hole of cultural exploration and discovery.


"The Rope of Life” by Mirinda Kossoff


“To the world, Dad achieved everything he set out to do and fashioned a new identity for himself from the clay soil of southwest Virginia. To me and others who loved him, he remained an enigma. He had walled himself off from his family and maybe even from himself.”


My one nonfiction favorite of the year, “The Rope of Life,” is a stunning memoir written by artist, journalist, and author, Mirinda Kossoff. She shares her experience growing up in a small Southern town with her Jewish-turned Southern Baptist father, and the identity struggles she had as a result of his discomfort with himself. Kossoff unpacks encounters with racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, and how they affected her life experiences and overall understanding of herself as a human being. Reading this book feels much like watching a documentary. You’re right there with the author, learning about her psyche in real time, at exactly the same time she is. It’s clear that Kossoff did a lot of digging into her own past and mental health, learning how her childhood conditioning played a massive role in how she became who she is today. Besides having themes relevant to where our nation stands socially and culturally, "The Rope of Life" is ultimately a tool for our own journeys of self-discovery.


I let these stories inspire and guide me to my new paper vacation destinations.


"Transcendent Kingdom" by Yaa Gyasi


“Surely, there’s strength in being dressed for a storm, even when there’s no storm in sight?”


"Transcendent Kingdom" is a slow, thought-provoking, and marvelous piece of work from Yaa Gyasi. It tells the story of Gifty, the only American-born member of her Ghanaian family. She lost her brother to addiction and is currently taking care of her depressed mother. This book describes what it’s like loving both an addict and a person struggling with mental illness, perfectly. It also masterfully uncovers how both of these things can affect you as you move forward in your own life, how you view love and relationships along with your ability to see things for what they are. A major takeaway from Gifty’s story is that sometimes we’re just trying our best to protect ourselves, but by building so many walls around our hearts, we miss out on some of the best parts of life. A novel about addiction, mental health, self-preservation, and the intricacies of love, it would be fair to say that "Transcendent Kingdom" changed my life outlook. Thank you, Yaa Gyasi.


"The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue" by V.E. Schwab


“Three words, large enough to tip the world. I remember you.”


Memories are the purest form of magic, the idea that we can revisit and feel certain moments again in our minds. "The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue" tells the story of Addie LaRue, a young woman born in 1691 who lives with the curse of always being forgotten. Anyone she meets will walk away from their interaction and instantly forget who she is. You ache for Addie throughout the novel (which travels to present day), feeling the loneliness she experiences while constantly being forgotten. I think we’ve all known that feeling of abandonment, the moment we become a memory rather than being an existing part of someone’s life. It’s especially heartbreaking to feel the pain fueled from the concept of never being remembered. Until Addie meets someone who does remember. Schwab weaves a story of the human heart into a thriller that had me guessing through all 480 pages. Will Addie break the curse?


To bring us back to the task at hand, creating a 2021 reading list, here’s a brief list of books I’m looking forward to reading this year, with a handful of South Carolina authors mixed in:


"American Traitor" by Brad Taylor (SC/Charleston author)

"The Prophets" by Robert Jones Jr.

"Let Me Tell You What I Mean" by Joan Didion

"The Four Winds" by Kristin Hannah

"The Islanders" by Mary Alice Monroe (SC author)

"You Want More: Selected Stories" by George Singleton (SC author)

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro