Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has...

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MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

From Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout (The Burgess Boys, 2013, etc.), a short, stark novel about the ways we break and maintain the bonds of family.

The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside—but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer. She marries a man from a comfortable background who can’t ever quite quiet her demons; his efforts to bridge the gap created by their wildly different upbringings occupy some of the novel’s saddest pages. As in Olive Kittredge (2008), Strout peels back layers of denial and self-protective brusqueness to reveal the love that Lucy’s mother feels but cannot express. In fewer than 200 intense, dense pages, she considers class prejudice, the shame that poverty brings, the AIDS epidemic, and the healing powers—and the limits—of art. Most of all, this is a story of mothers and daughters: Lucy’s ambivalent feelings for the mother who failed to protect her are matched by her own guilt for leaving the father of her two girls, who have never entirely forgiven her. Later sections, in which Lucy’s dying mother tells her “I need you to leave” and the father who brutalized her says, “What a good girl you’ve always been,” are almost unbearably moving, with their pained recognition that the mistakes we make are both irreparable and subject to repentance. The book does feel a bit abbreviated, but that’s only because the characters and ideas are so compelling we want to hear more from the author who has limned them so sensitively.

Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has never required improvement.

Pub Date: Jan. 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6769-5

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

Honest, tender, and exquisitely crafted. A novel to savor.

FORTY ROOMS

The award-winning author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2006) and The Line (2010) contemplates the tension between art and domesticity.

A little girl walks into a bedroom to find a mermaid sorting through her mother’s jewelry. The mermaid knows the story of every bauble: these earrings were a gift from the czar’s uncle to the girl’s great-grandmother, a ballerina; that uncut emerald was prised from an icon during the revolution and purchased by the girl’s grandfather for a “length of smoked sausage and a box of German sweets.” In the cramped kitchen of her family’s Moscow apartment, this same girl is secretly reading forbidden verse when she meets an angel—or is he a god? “Do you want to be immortal?” he asks her. She says, “Yes.” The exhilarating opening chapters of Grushin’s latest novel are narrated by an unnamed heroine who can see through mundane reality—beneath it, beyond it—into other worlds. She is a poet. Scornful of the ordinary life her parents imagine for her, she travels from Russia to the United States. There, she experiences doomed love and the romance of suffering for one’s art. But—moment by moment, choice by choice—her commitment to immortality recedes until the passionate young poet telling her story disappears and re-emerges as “she,” a character observed from a distance, a woman who will soon come to be known as “Mrs. Caldwell.” It’s taken as a given that an upper-middle-class wife and mother cannot be an artist. There is magic, even in the suburbs; it’s just that Mrs. Caldwell can’t see it. But, at the same time, Grushin is too sly to be bound by cliché. If Mrs. Caldwell fails to be true to herself—and that “if” is sincere—this is because there are real questions about who that true self is. These are questions that women, especially, will recognize.

Honest, tender, and exquisitely crafted. A novel to savor.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-98233-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Marian Wood/Putnam

Review Posted Online: Nov. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2015

One of a kind. Deserves a big splash and lots of readers.

WALKING THE DOG

An international art star becomes a dog walker after 25 harsh years in federal prison.

This funny, edgy, and winning novel introduces an extraordinary narrator who reveals her back story slowly and tantalizingly, so spoilers must be avoided here. Her name is Carleen Kepper, but it used to be Ester Rosenthal. It was changed by the woman who admitted her into the prison system to serve her life sentence because “They’ll kill you within a day and a half for crucifying their Lord.” For reasons that will be revealed, Carleen has been paroled and is living in a halfway house in New York City. She works as a dog walker and trainer, an occupation at which she is uniquely gifted. She is also trying to gain access to her 11-year-old daughter, a precocious girl who has changed her name from Pony to Batya Shulamite and is preparing for her bat mitzvah. How can she have a child that age if she was in prison since she was 18? Can’t tell you. What can be said is that Ester Rosenthal was an art prodigy who made the cover of the New York Times Magazine at the age of 12 and whose paintings sell for more than $100,000, and it is kleptomania and prankery that got way out of hand that led to her incarceration. Among many great things about this book, each of its many dogs practically leaps off the page. Carleen on black standard poodles: “They demand constant, unequivocal love and will leap into your lap as if they were toy versions of themselves and are insulted when ordered to get off. They learn their commands instantly, but not because they are particularly smart. They’re more like teenage boys who joined the army too soon and will do any discipline just to prove they can do it.” Swados (My Depression: A Picture Book, 2005, etc.), a respected playwright, died at 64 just after finishing this novel.

One of a kind. Deserves a big splash and lots of readers.

Pub Date: June 14, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-55861-921-0

Page Count: 392

Publisher: Feminist Press

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

This author is on her way to becoming a national treasure.

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TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT

A day in the life of an enchanting and gifted woman who is almost too frazzled to go on.

The women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the mad housewives, and the Annie Halls can welcome a new member to their club: Eleanor Flood, the narrator of Semple’s (Where’d You Go Bernadette, 2012, etc.) second sendup of Seattle and its denizens. Eleanor, formerly a New Yorker and the animator of a popular cartoon about four girls in “ '60’s style pinafores” misdirecting “their unconscious fear of puberty into a random hatred of hippies, owners of pure-bred dogs and babies named Steve,” lives in Seattle with her sweet Seahawks doctor husband and her precocious, makeup-wearing third-grade son. Timby goes to Galer Street School, an ultra–PC environ familiar to Bernadette fans, where Eleanor imagines his arrival was greeted with delighted cries of “Eureka! We’ve got a transgender!” This book is so packed with interesting characters and situations, it could have been three times as long. You want more New Orleans Garden District (where Eleanor’s sister has been kidnapped by an effete Mardi Gras krewe captain), more New York animation studio, more poignant childhood stories (dead actress mother and alcoholic father, illustrated in a beautiful color insert), more annotated poems ("Skunk Hour," by Robert Lowell). Only one thing you don’t want more of—a weird plotline about husband Joe’s secret life. As Eleanor tells Timby when they visit a public art installation, “I don’t mean to ruin the ending for you, sweet child, but life is one long headwind. To make any kind of impact requires self-will bordering on madness. The world will be hostile, it will be suspicious of your intent, it will misinterpret you, it will pack you with doubt, it will flatter you into self-sabotage—My God, I’m making it sound so glamorous and personal! What the world is, more than anything? It’s indifferent.” Ah, Eleanor. You could have stopped at glamorous and personal. Because few will be indifferent to this achingly funny and very dear book.

This author is on her way to becoming a national treasure.

Pub Date: Oct. 4, 2016

ISBN: 9780316403436

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

A haunting, visceral novel that heralds the birth of a powerful new voice in American fiction.

GRACE

Fifteen-year-old Naomi flees slavery in Alabama for a better life of freedom up North—only to run into trouble along the way.

Naomi has spent her childhood on Massa Hilden's plantation watching her mother systematically raped under his orders because Hilden wants to breed more slaves to sell. But when Massa Hilden focuses on Naomi and her sister Hazel as the new targets for his sexual violence, the girls' mother kills Massa Hilden and pays for it with her own life. Although it's Hazel who has long held dreams of freedom, it's only Naomi who then manages to escape the plantation. She makes it as far as Coyners, Georgia, before falling sick and being rescued by Cynthia,  the madam of the local brothel, who's looking for a new slave she doesn't actually have to lay out any money to purchase. Naomi hides out there, falls in love, and finds herself pregnant—until her fugitive-slave past is discovered and she's forced on the run again. But Naomi doesn't get far; her baby decides to arrive, and Naomi is quickly hunted down and shot by slave catchers moments after giving birth. From the afterlife, Naomi watches her daughter, named Josephine, grow up—longing for the lost chance to be a mother to her daughter. The novel, narrated by Naomi from this moment of her death, crisscrosses through time, cutting between past and present. This structure, which serves to distract from rather than add to the story, is the only weakness of the book. But this is a brave story, necessary and poignant; it is a story that demands to be heard. This is the violent, terrifying world of the antebellum South, where African-American women were prey and their babies sold like livestock. This is the story of mothers and daughters—of violence, absence, love, and legacies. Deón’s vivid imagery, deft characterization, and spellbinding language carry the reader through this suspenseful tale.

A haunting, visceral novel that heralds the birth of a powerful new voice in American fiction.

Pub Date: June 14, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61902-720-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2016

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

McKenzie’s idiosyncratic love story scampers along on a wonderfully zig-zaggy path, dashing and darting in delightfully...

THE PORTABLE VEBLEN

On the brink of her marriage, a charmingly quirky, unassumingly intelligent, and winningly warmhearted young woman forges an unusually strong bond with a squirrel.

It’s easy to understand why everyone in Veblen Amundsen-Hovda’s life adores and depends on her. The heroine of McKenzie’s (MacGregor Tells the World, 2007, etc.) disarmingly offbeat novel is the sort of person who not only sews her own clothes and fixes up her own tumbledown bungalow (in ultrapricey Palo Alto, California), but supports herself working temp jobs while performing the unappreciated yet worthy task of translating texts from Norwegian, especially those pertaining to maverick economist, anti-materialist, and leisure-class critic Thorstein Veblen, after whom she was named. Veblen—whom the author describes as an “independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self”—has just gotten engaged to Paul Vreeland, an equally charming yet outwardly more conventional young neurologist, whose academic research has led to a device that's captured the attention of industry and the Department of Defense. Paul and Veblen are in love, betrothed, and planning their wedding and life together, but Paul is tempted by the kind of “conspicuous consumption” Veblen’s economist namesake and hero railed against. Meanwhile, Veblen’s heart has been stolen by a squirrel, who she suspects understands her in a way no one else may. Paul is struggling to calibrate his ethical compass—and to come to terms with his issues surrounding his hippy parents and his intellectually disabled brother, Justin. Veblen is laboring to free herself from the demands of her narcissistic, hypochondriacal mother (not to mention the mentally unstable father who was mostly absent from her childhood) and stake her claim to her own healthy identity and future. Will these kind, if somewhat confused, young people find their ways out of the past and to each other and a happy shared future? The reader can’t help rooting them on.

McKenzie’s idiosyncratic love story scampers along on a wonderfully zig-zaggy path, dashing and darting in delightfully unexpected directions as it progresses toward its satisfying end and scattering tasty literary passages like nuts along the way.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-685-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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