"The storyline is conceptually and thematically intriguing—particularly in its exploration of the inner thoughts of its damaged characters."– Kirkus Reviews
Duffy’s (To Never Know, 2016, etc.) sci-fi novel tells of a dystopian American future in which children are separated by gender soon after birth and kept from their parents for 22 years.
The rules of the current society were implemented in 2163 as population control. Until this change, many children were involved in criminal activity, and numerous colleges had shut down due to low enrollment. In the new order, kids are raised and educated away from their parents and never learn about the opposite sex, dating, or procreation until they’re allowed back into the “mixed” world, post-college. However, even in a system that demands perfection, Carolina and Kevin Parker’s child, Finn, stands out, as he thrives on competition. He later becomes a heralded mathematician with a good job in the mixed world, where he meets a woman, Angela, whom he considers his intellectual equal. But everything falls apart after the two marry and their son, Leonardo, is taken away at birth. Finn gets restless, divorces Angela, and becomes a teacher; when he finds that he can’t endure the separation from Leonardo, he decides to visit his son’s school to make contact with him. That’s illegal, and as a result, Finn and Angela are barred from ever seeing their child again. Soon, Finn finds out there’s more to the separation laws than the general public knows, and he finds himself banished, fighting to survive. The overall premise of Duffy’s story is intriguing, and it takes opportunities to dig into such topics as sexual politics, religion, freedom, and destiny. However, the prose is stale and the dialogue is stiff. When Finn proposes to Angela, for instance, he tells her, “My heart can’t beat without the thought of you passing my mind at least 10 times per heartbeat.” The worldbuilding also leaves something to be desired; for example, there’s no sense of who the leaders are, other than that they’re a rich, manipulative group. Also, readers don’t get to see how anyone else is affected by the society’s rules, other than Finn and his family members.
An ambitious story that winds up feeling hollow.
A Queens resident becomes consumed by the desire to find a girl from his high school days in this novel.
Steven Lewis is just starting his adult life in New York after graduating with a sociology degree from a city university. He works for a music distribution company, has moved out of his parents’ house, and would be happy to see an uptick in his social life. He has recently been dating a shallow woman from the Bronx named Nancy, but he cannot let go of the thought of one girl from the past. Kelly Brennan, from his humanities class, is someone who always made him wonder, “What if?” He had gone as far as asking her to the prom, and she declined, but all these years later he still hopes there is the possibility of a relationship with her. Steven’s parents suddenly decide to move to Orlando, Florida, and he elects to accompany them. While working at a video store, he learns of the 9/11 attacks. He is filled with sadness and disbelief, but also a craving to return to New York, begin a career, and locate Kelly. Back in Queens, he becomes a pharmacy assistant and reconnects with Nancy. A chance encounter with Kelly’s mother, Emily, rekindles his obsession with Kelly, though he is distressed to learn she was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. As Steven spends more time with the grieving Emily, his yearning for the dead Kelly leads him to have ever stronger feelings for Emily. Duffy (Heartbreaker, 2015, etc.) expertly describes both Steven’s economic anxieties and his romantic longing for the girl who got away. The idea of Kelly as the perfect companion serves as a guiding force that seems to center him in the midst of many distractions. Whether someone can be closer to a dead person by dating her mother, though, remains a question that is certainly unique, and one that Steven explores to some extent in what is a readable but rambling book that fails to be altogether satisfying. Because Kelly is not alive, there are few possible conclusions to this story, and the chosen ending remains unconvincing.
A meandering tale of a singular relationship between two needy New York souls.
Duffy (One Love, 2014) offers a fusion of crime fiction, romance, and existential philosophy in this novel about a troubled young woman.
The storyline follows 19-year-old Amber Robertson from Maryland to New York City, where she hopes to put her promiscuous past behind her and begin a new life. But, burdened by financial hardship, she soon turns to prostitution to pay the bills. This decision leads to a series of events that will irrevocably change her life: she’s arrested for shoplifting, then charged with prostitution, and later drugged and abducted by one of her johns—a former restaurant manager from New Jersey named Miguel. When she regains consciousness, she finds that he’s handcuffed her to a bed. He tells her that he’ll still pay her for sex but that she’s essentially his prisoner until she learns some invaluable life lessons. Amber is forced to use her wits to survive long enough to either escape or convince her emotionally unstable captor to release her. When she’s finally free again and dating a passionate yet enigmatic movie theater manager named Jeffrey, Miguel’s twisted advice begin seeping back into her subconscious, and she starts to see her boyfriend in a different, and darker, light. This novel’s redemptive exploration of love and loneliness is simultaneously disturbing and thought-provoking. The storyline is conceptually and thematically intriguing—particularly in its exploration of the inner thoughts of its damaged characters. The novel falls short of its potential, though, due to sloppy writing, including numerous grammatical errors and stilted dialogue (“I am addicted, you see, to you. I cannot overcome this addiction”). There are also no page breaks between point-of-view shifts, which makes the novel seem jumbled together.
A dark yet hopeful tale of personal salvation laid low by inadequate editing.
An unexpected reunion with a lost love leads a man to re-evaluate his life and relationships in Duffy’s (Stockboy, 2013, etc.) third novel.
Timothy Anderson is a college student and aspiring novelist. Following graduation, he works at a movie theater, where he hopes to find a girlfriend. He answers a personal ad and goes on a perfect date with Melody. Timothy believes she’s his true love, but Melody abruptly disappears. Years pass, and Timothy meets Cindy. They move in together and struggle with money issues and family complications (Cindy’s dad is a compulsive gambler). Timothy never forgets about Melody though, and he finds her on Facebook. She’s married and has three young kids, but that doesn’t stop them from having an affair. As Timothy re-evaluates his choices and relationships, a series of events puts Cindy in danger and leads Melody to weigh her feelings for Timothy and her husband. Duffy’s protagonist is an earnest young man whose attempts at becoming a writer are waylaid by family troubles and making a living. Many readers may relate to Timothy’s succession of part-time or low-paying full-time jobs and his attempts to ascend the career ladder. Although they come from different backgrounds, Melody and Cindy are likable supporting characters whose family dilemmas mirror Timothy’s. The weakest element here is Timothy’s relationship with Melody. She appears only briefly at the beginning, and her character development is limited to their first and only date. Although the date ends well, there is little to suggest she shared Timothy’s passion. Their affair would have been more believable if she had a bigger role from the outset of the novel.
A finely observed character study flattened by an underwhelming romance.
Duffy’s first novel follows a man named Phillip on his retail and relationship journeys as he works at a novelty store in Times Square.
Phillip works as a stock boy at a Times Square store called Milton’s World of Fun, which sells literature-inspired toys and gifts. Phillip, who has a college degree, wants a better job to gain financial stability and to be able to confidently pursue a relationship. When he’s rejected from the New York City Teaching Fellows program, he decides to focus his efforts on getting a promotion from replenishment to the sales floor; unfortunately, senior management isn’t supportive, and Phillip’s work and potential remain overlooked. In the meantime, Phillip tries online dating and meets Melissa, a lawyer who lives in Queens and has similar taste in movies as Phillip. They begin dating, but Phillip isn’t honest about his job: He tells Melissa he’s a teacher. Feeling too much pressure to get a better apartment and to be able to take Melissa out on dates, he eventually ends things. The situation at work continues to be discouraging, and Phillip has no luck finding a job elsewhere. Just as his relationship with Melissa starts to gain ground again, a situation arises that threatens to reveal his real profession to Melissa. The end of the book takes a meta turn, as Phillip writes a memoir about working at Milton’s. The day-to-day minutiae of retail can be humorous, with anecdotes of co-workers’ antics and supervisors’ mismanagement that will be relatable to many readers. The book, however, doesn’t let the characters entertain or become engaging; there is virtually no dialogue, turning most situations into dull summaries of interactions and conversations. The happenings on the stockroom floor read like a procedural—“Any item that was open, missing a piece or in bad shape made its way to the damages and an employee was usually designated to process the destroyed goods through the system by subtracting them from the inventory using a scanner”—with the omniscient narrator expressing the characters’ thoughts and motivations. Phillip doesn’t want to be categorized as just a stock boy, but the telling of his experiences ends up being rather flat.
A one-dimensional portrait dampens what could be a relatable story.