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Book Description

The national bestseller and New York Times Notable Book about a young single mother living in New York, her eccentric aunt, and the decisions they make that have unexpected implications for the world around them from one of America’s most gifted writers of fiction, “our own country’s Alice Munro” (The Washington Post).

Reyna knows her relationship with Boyd isn’t perfect, yet as she visits him throughout his three–month stint at Rikers Island, their bond grows tighter. Kiki, now settled in the East Village after a journey that took her to Turkey and around the world, admires her niece’s spirit but worries that she always picks the wrong man. Little does she know that the otherwise honorable Boyd is pulling Reyna into a cigarette smuggling scheme, across state lines, where he could risk violating probation. When Reyna ultimately decides to remove herself for the sake of her four–year–old child, her small act of resistance sets into motion a tapestry of events that affect the lives of loved ones and strangers around them.

A novel that examines conviction, connection, and the possibility of generosity in the face of loss, Improvement is as intricately woven together as Kiki’s beloved Turkish rugs, as colorful as the tattoos decorating Reyna’s body, with narrative twists and turns as surprising and unexpected as the lives all around us. The Boston Globe says of Joan Silber: “No other writer can make a few small decisions ripple across the globe, and across time, with more subtlety and power.” Improvement is Silber’s most shining achievement yet.

“Without fuss or flourishes, Joan Silber weaves a remarkably patterned tapestry connecting strangers from around the world to a central tragic car accident. The writing here is funny and down–to–earth, the characters are recognizably fallible, and the message is quietly profound: We are not ever really alone, however lonely we feel.” —The Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Praise For This Book

Praise for Improvement


Winner of the 2018 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

Long–listed for the 2020 Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Prize

Author is the Recipient of the 2018 PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
A Notable Work of Fiction in 2017 (The Washington Post)
A Top Fiction Title of 2017 (Wall Street Journal)
A Newsday Best Book of 2017
A Kirkus Best Book of 2017
A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

“Without fuss or flourishes, Joan Silber weaves a remarkably patterned tapestry connecting strangers from around the world to a central tragic car accident. The writing here is funny and down–to–earth, the characters are recognizably fallible, and the message is quietly profound: We are not ever really alone, however lonely we feel.” —The Wall Street Journal, 1 of 10 top fiction titles of 2017

“Some books make evangelists of critics, and Silber’s eighth book is one of them. Written with minimalist mastery and maximum feeling, the novel circles a number of characters linked—sometimes closely, sometimes not—to Reyna, a tattooed single mom in New York. What do we want out of life? How do we hold on to love? How do we get over it? Silber, a writer’s writer who deserves a wider audience, explores big questions with subtlety, humor, and compassion. 'Improvement is an everyday masterpiece,' writes reviewer Tom Beer.” —Newsday, Best Books of 2017

“With consummate skill, Silber reveals surprising connections between characters in contemporary New York and 1970s Turkey.” —The New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

“Both the plot and the prose maintain an absorbing momentum.” —The New Yorker

“[I]t feels vital to love Silber’s work, which has been too little loved, too little mentioned, beyond a small readership that seems to be composed mostly of other writers. Silber is 72, and with Improvement has written at least three truly great books. Now is the moment to appreciate that she is here, in our midst: our country’s own Alice Munro. Silber’s great theme as a writer is the way in which humans are separated from their intentions, by desires, ideas, time... Like Grace Paley and Lucia Berlin, she’s a master of talking a story past its easiest meaning; like Munro, a master of the compression and dilation of time, what time and nothing else can reveal to people about themselves. She has an American voice: silvery, within arm’s length of old cadences, but also limber, thieving, marked by occasional raids on slang and jargon, at ease both high and low, funny, tenderhearted, sharp. It gives her the rare ability to reach the deepest places in the plainest ways.” —Washington Post

“This is a novel of richness and wisdom and huge pleasure. Silber knows, and reveals, how close we live to the abyss, but she also revels in joy, particularly the joy that comes from intimate relationships . . . [A] perfectly balanced mix of celebration and wryness.” —The New York Times Book Review

“The gorgeous though damaged Turkish rug that adorns the dust jacket of Joan Silber’s Improvement is a fitting symbol for this exceptional novel, and not just because one of its subplots concerns carpet dealing. Ms. Silber is a weaver of disparate lives . . . With Improvement she has created her most vibrant tapestry of what she wryly calls 'the ever–expanding joke of human trouble' . . . Improvement is forthright and funny about the blinkered muddle humankind makes for itself. Yet its vibrating web of interconnection is hopeful and beautiful.” —The Wall Street Journal

“There's always room for Joan Silber's Improvement.” —Vanity Fair

“You can feel, in those words, how tenderly Silber treats her large cast of men and women, how she deals out small moments of grace even as things go terribly wrong for them. This seems like a good place to bring up Silber’s voice: unshowy and intimate, precise and colloquial, she seems almost to be confiding the novel to us, a worldly wise aunt not unlike Kiki herself. She marshals great feeling in the course of Improvement without making it seem a big deal . . . An everyday masterpiece.” —Newsday

“If your must–read this month is a love–and–loss story seasoned with single motherhood and smuggling schemes, National Book Award finalist Joan Silber's Improvement hits the sexy sweet spot from page one.” —Elle Magazine

“My revelation of the year was the writing of Joan Silber . . . I was immediately captivated by her fictional method, a cross between the novel and linked stories, in which a minor character in one chapter will become a major figure in another. This connect–the–dots narrative structure makes possible wide leaps over time and space, while still offering that sense of connection and emotional depth that makes the best fiction so satisfying.” —Ruth Franklin, Favorite Books of 2017, The Paris Review

“Joan Silber’s quietly brilliant novel Improvement weaves an intricate, zigzagging pattern out of the lives of a dozen people, and six well–chosen narrators provide the voices . . . The multiplicity of voices in this production gives a wonderful aural dimension to the weave of inadvertently interlocked lives.” —The Washington Post, Best New Audio Books of December

“Her work generates tension and momentum from the ebbs and flows of individual lives, but also from the unexpected and sometimes unexplained links between them . . . Like the Turkish carpet that drives much of the book’s action, Improvement repeats shapes and motifs, layering them in an intricate pattern that builds into something far more complex than the sum of its parts . . . Her technique of shifting viewpoints from one chapter to the next highlights not only the way a single dramatic event can ripple outward into ever–expanding circles, but also how a moment that is incidental for one person can be decisive for another . . . Part of Silber’s gift is knowing which stories not to tell. Her prose is spare, devoid of flourishes and extraneous information . . . It is both tragic and infuriating that a writer [like Joan] as innovative, humane, and wise is not read more widely.” —Ruth Franklin, The New York Review of Books

“The much celebrated Silber creates yet another artfully structured new novel, in which stories of a multitude of characters ricochet in cunning ways, crossing generations and continents . . . [An] intriguing contemporary chronicle.” —BBC Culture, 1 of the 10 Best Books of 2017

“I am embarrassed to admit that I missed Joan Silber’s Improvement when it first came out, in 2017, but not so embarrassed that I won’t still recommend it now. It’s that good.” —Alessandra Codinha, Vogue

“Such is Silber’s expertise that it requires no more than a paragraph, or even a couple of sentences, to involve us in the next one, and the next . . . Silber’s superb handling of time . . . draws the disparate lives into a unity, and makes this compressed novel feel mysteriously capacious.” —Anthony Quinn, The Guardian

Improvement is a tapestry of interweaving narratives tied together by two unconventional women—an aunt and her niece who defy family expectations . . . That Silber is a writer’s writer just means that her diverse cast of characters never feel anything but authentic, and her prose is both precise on the sentence level and masterly in structure.” —Vulture

“There is something so refreshing and genuine about this book, coming partly from the bumpy weave of its unpredictable story and partly from its sharply turned yet refreshingly unmannered prose. A winner.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Silber uses beautiful declarative sentences to paint a whole mural of a story, and how she does it is entertaining and very sweet. This is a morally decent novel, and God knows we need more of those right now.” —Lisa Peet, Library Journal, What We're Reading Now

“Silber weaves together character studies that examine love, money (and how to get it,) and the ripple effects of choices made. Silber’s decision to write events of great magnitude from everyday points of view lends realism and universality to her story. Fans of character–driven, literary fiction should be on the lookout for Improvement.” —Booklist

“The subtle ripple effects of individual choices and actions are eloquently portrayed through Silber's penetrating eye in this elegant and thought–provoking novel.” —Library Journal

“This gorgeously written novel, funny and full of heart, follows several characters in the life of Reyna, a tattooed single mom with a rambunctious son, a boyfriend in Rikers, and a wise aunt who has seen it all. Each chapter tells a story. I loved every one of them.” —The Seattle Times, Mary Ann Gwinn’s favorite books of 2017

Improvement is a major work of literature.” —Nick Hornby, The Believer

“Silber's concise and lyrical writing is at its best in her latest novel, Improvement.” —Washington Life

“The prose serenely glides over irreversible, defining moments and how differently characters deal with the curveballs life throws at them . . . Improvement is a meditation on the space of time and distance and certain defining events change people and propel them to re–calibrate their priorities in life . . . The prose eloquently evinces human emotions—love and heartbreak, regret and loss, guilt and redemption . . . Improvement reads like fragmented character studies of a disparate group of people, intricately woven together by chance and fate. Exquisitely woven, this is a rich tapestry of human conditions.” —Chicago Review of Books

“The centrifugal momentum of Silber’s tales pushes Improvement away from conventional resolutions, thus avoiding the tidy endings of tragedy and comedy. While these characters enjoy no generic happy ending (a contrivance that would feel false in a novel of such finely observed realism), neither are they crushed beneath the wheel of an annihilating Fortune. They make difficult decisions and learn to live with the consequences, joy and bitterness mixed equally. Ultimate success may be unreachable and undefinable, but with honest self–assessment and maybe a little luck, improvement remains possible.” —

“Silber’s extraordinary new novel, with a single mother and her eccentric aunt at its center, is kaleidoscopic as it spans decades and stretches from New York to Berlin and Turkey. Her wildly different characters intersect, and as she subtly details the quotidian stuff of life, she raises questions about fate and chance, power and redemption, and, finally, the universal need for connection.” —The National Book Review

“A novel featuring cigarette smuggling, single parenting, prison, and rug collectors, the beginning of which was published in Tin House and appears in Best American Short Stories. In a starred review, Kirkus says 'There is something so refreshing and genuine about this book.'“ —The Millions

“We love a good butterfly effect scenario, and Improvement delivers tenfold.” —HelloGiggles

“It's absolutely wonderful . . . She's an amazing writer . . . She manages to really understand the complicated relationships between people and how people connect and disconnect and how true love is something you carry with you all your life and how that changes over time. It's a beautiful book and I can't recommend Joan Silber enough.” —James Conrad, The Golden Notebook (Woodstock, NY) on Book Picks, WAMC

“I love all of Joan Silber's work for her mastery of character, her ferocious and searching compassion, and her elegant lines that make the mind hum for hours. Improvement is so crisp and resonant a novel that it made me forget the chaos of life around me; a feat for which I'm truly grateful.” —Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies

“Joan Silber is America’s own Alice Munro. The psychological acuity, the ambition, the breadth of time and space: it’s all there in Improvement, which demonstrates with great poignancy how our small decisions ramify out and touch the lives of people we don’t even know. This book is deep and true and riveting.” —Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You

“In Improvement, Joan Silber’s skillful new novel, characters suffer from failed romances, moves to distant shores, and death, yet somehow, they manage to find each other in the end, and reconnect in deeply meaningful and satisfying ways. Silber is not only a gorgeous and masterful writer, she is also a wise and knowing one.” —Lily Tuck, author of The Double Life of Liliane

“More than any writer I know, Joan Silber's fiction makes sense of the randomness of our connections while honoring the essential mystery that drives our desires. Her sentences are so finely tuned that they miraculously convey her characters’ everyday foibles and ecstatic recognitions at the very same time. Improvement is a searching and profound novel by one of our masters.” —Marisa Silver, author of Little Nothing and Mary Coin

“Subtle, sexy, brilliant in its unexpected connections and soulful generosity, this is an intensely satisfying novel.” —Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and Archangel

“A new book by Joan Silber is a grand event in American literature. Silber has been creating a unique body of work that, in its immense authority and vision, puts her in the company of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. Improvement is a novel that explores love and ambition and the way it entangles, wounds, transforms vibrant characters across New York City, Virginia, Turkey, and Germany. This is a magnificent work about the complexity of human connection, full of remarkable insight and compassion.” —Karen E. Bender, author of Refund, a finalist for the National Book Award

“This story wanders through New York City, the hills of Turkey, and the interstates of New Jersey. The novel opens and closes with the story of Reyna, a single mother with a boyfriend in prison at Rikers Island whose money–making scheme comes with big risks. In the book, Silber plays a game of twenty degrees by connecting each segment of the book through the previous segment. The cascading stories result in a hopeful and absorbing story of modern life.” —Graham Fox, Deschutes Public Library (Bend, OR)