POOR THINGS

The recent winner of Whitbread Novel Award for 1992, as well as the Guardian Fiction Prize: a witty sendup of the Victorian pantheon as Scottish novelist Gray (Sporting Leather, 1991, etc.) masterfully demolishes those scientific, cultural, and social shibboleths that so comforted our forebears. With invented blurbs and a tongue-in-cheek introduction, Gray immediately signals his intentions to tell a story, refuted later in an epilogue, that's so bizarre that its credibility will be automatically suspect—a story more concerned with highlighting the absurdities of the day than with any reality. Setting the tale in his native Glasgow, Gray purports to be publishing the memoirs of a Victorian doctor, Archibald McCandless, the illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer who was befriended by Godwin Baxter, the strange- looking son of an eminent surgeon. Baxter, he soon learns, having removed the brain from the fetus of a recently drowned woman and inserted it in her skull, has brought the young woman back to life. Bella—a prototype Victorian new woman and a female Frankenstein- -falls in love with McCandless, but elopes first with another. Her adventures abroad are suitably picaresque; but as Bella's brain catches up with her physical maturity, she becomes aware of suffering and injustice and decides to become a doctor back in Scotland. Unfortunately, though, she's been recognized as the long- missing and presumed drowned Victoria Blessington. Her wedding to the faithful McCandless is interrupted by the arrival of her mendacious father and sadistic husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington. All eventually ends well—but in the epilogue, seemingly turning the story on its head, the widowed Dr. Victoria McCandless describes the tale as mainly a work of fiction that ``stinks of Victorianism.'' Which is, of course, the whole point. Gray has not only pulled off a stylistic tour de force, but has slyly slipped in a stunning critique of the late-19th-century. A brilliant marriage of technique, intelligence, and art. And, as an extra bonus, lavish illustrations by the author himself.

Pub Date: March 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-15-173076-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1992

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The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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