Few things are more comforting and reassuring than being read to. For children, it’s a form of connection, sitting beside a parent at bedtime, allowing a story to ease them into sleep. For adults, listening to fiction, letting someone else’s voice take them on a journey, can still be a way to connect—and to escape. To immerse yourself in a character’s world is to leave your own behind. The Writer’s Voice, the New Yorker podcast on which writers read their story from the latest issue, offers the additional pleasure of hearing a story read the way its author intended it to be heard. As we approach the end of another year in which the real world was sometimes a frightening place to be, we’d like to take a look back at the most listened-to episodes of 2021.
Margaret Atwood’s rendition of her story “Old Babes in the Wood” doesn’t, at first, seem like escapist fiction. Her characters, two aging sisters, visit the family’s cottage to nurse their losses and their aching knees. But the comedy of their communications and the wryness of their reflections on the past provide a counterweight to the sadness: “My heart is broken, Nell thinks. But in our family we don’t say, ‘My heart is broken.’ We say, ‘Are there any cookies?’ ”
Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Casting Shadows” follows a single woman’s walks through her neighborhood, where she encounters an ex, a neighbor, and a friend’s husband. Although the narrative doesn’t take place during the pandemic, it captures something of the isolation and distance we’ve experienced in the past twenty months: “In August my neighborhood thins out: it wastes away like an old woman who was once a stunning beauty before shutting down completely. Some people spend the month here on purpose; they hole up gladly, turning antisocial. Others cower at the thought of those shapeless days and weeks, the severe closure. Their moods dip, they flee.”
“The Wind,” Lauren Groff’s hair-raising tale of domestic abuse, has a propulsive, intense energy as it recounts a woman’s attempt to escape her violent husband with her three children. The story of that day is narrated from the perspective of the woman’s daughter, who was twelve at the time, and understood how much was at stake: “The knowledge was heavy on the nape of her neck, like a hand pressing down hard. And what came to her was the trail of bread crumbs from the fairy tale her mother used to tell her in the dark when she was tiny, and it was just the two of them in the bedroom, no brothers in this life, not yet.”
Rebecca Curtis’s story “Satellites” is set at a house on the Jersey Shore, where Conor and Tony, lifelong friends, meet during the pandemic and relive scenes from their checkered pasts. These stories-within-a-story are told for the benefit of Conor’s wife, the narrator of “Satellites,” who is a writer: “We paid babysitters to watch our toddler, theoretically so that I could write novels, but all I’d written were short stories about slutty cat-women, which my agent told me to delete from my computer, and my husband had decided that, to help my career, he’d invite Tony, who’d been a cop for twenty years, and ask Tony to tell me cop stories, which I could turn into movie-ready cop sagas.”
“The Mom of Bold Action,” by George Saunders, also revolves around a storyteller, a mother who tries to write children’s books by anthropomorphizing the household objects around her. When her son is shoved by a stranger, she becomes embroiled in an internal philosophical debate about punishment and forgiveness, which leads her to write something completely different: “An essay. ‘Justice,’ she called it. Goodbye, can openers with big dreams; goodbye, talking trees; goodbye, Henry the Dutiful Ice-Cream-Truck Tire, that piece of crap she’d worked on for most of last year; goodbye, forced optimism; goodbye, political correctness. This was the real shit. Wow. She knew just what to say.”
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