The Last Girls by Lee Smith
The Goods: At one point in this book, a character remarks that there are really only two stories in all of literature: "someone goes on a trip," and "a stranger comes to town."* This book is both. First, it's the story of four middle-aged women, former college roommates, who reunite for a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi to scatter the ashes of their friend, Baby (who dies under mysterious circumstances). Interspersed are flashbacks to their college days, when they made a similar trip down the Mississippi by raft, Huck Finn-style, and the way their lives were changed when they meet Baby, a wild, beautiful, and unstable girl.
Thoughts: During the short track speed skating races last night, an announcer said of 1000m bronze medalist Yang Yang, she's probably the 10th fastest woman in this race, but because she's a smart and experienced skater, she took third. Lee Smith is a lot like that. There are better writers than Lee Smith, but she writes better books than most of them: sympathetic and rich characters, clean narrative style, page-turning plots, and no stylistic tricks cluttering the thing up.
Just a good old-fashioned story about the last group of women to go through college in the pre-women's movement years - the last 'girls' - and what became of them.
If you liked...: July, July by Tim O'Brien, The Group by Mary McCarthy, or Uncommon Women by Wendy Wasserstein, this book is for you.
* I actually tested this theory out on my bookshelf - it holds up remarkably well.