A handsome but tormented Cuban man finds both joy and hardship in this operatic novel.

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The Troubleseeker

Olympian and Santería mythologies merge in this international romance.

Lessik’s debut novel has just about everything: love, identity, politics, the politics of identity, heartbreak, mythical overtones, and innumerable gods in the machine. Antinio grows up in a Cuba that is unapologetically militant (whereas he is peaceful), irreligious (where he is polytheistic), and macho (while he is gay). He has advantages too: he’s winsome, muscular, quick to learn foreign tongues, and has a very big pinga. He first comes to enjoy sex with boys at a military encampment during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. After he’s raped by one of the more vicious boys, he attempts suicide and returns to civilian life. But to be gay is to violate taboo in the Cuba of the ’60s and when Antinio’s affections are revealed, he’s expelled from college and comes to feel himself lower than a worm.As an adolescent, Antinio’s favorite book is The Golden Ages, a primer on the gods of Olympus and the heroes they championed. “Antinio saw the similarity between the gods he was studying and the Santería orishas,” various aspects of the godhead’s divinity. Characters in the novel (Calypso, for example, the woman who protects his secrets and gets him readmitted to the university as a linguist) appear with names from Greek mythology, but there is a decided mixing of influence: Calypso, in the book, is also a priestess of Santería. A doctor who tends his fate in a psychiatric ward is named Minos. This is charming, if unsubtle, and the key at the beginning of the work—spelling out the meaning of the characters’ Greek names and what roles they play in the narrative—probably gives the game away a bit too early. But there’s another level to the metaphor: “Antinio and his partners use the terms Greek-active and -passive to describe their sexual behavior.” To be gay was (and is) often to be scorned in America as well, and when the story follows Antinio’s journey to Minnesota as a refugee, and then, later, into illness and suffering, Lessik’s prose is always sympathetic and eloquent.

A handsome but tormented Cuban man finds both joy and hardship in this operatic novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-937627-27-0

Page Count: 270

Publisher: Chelsea Station Editions

Review Posted Online: July 19, 2016

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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