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FAMOUS ADOPTED PEOPLE

The increasing tension and outlandishness of Stephens’ work lends itself to a poignant take on the topic of family.

A biting critique of identity that lampoons genetic ties and ethnic stereotypes.

Debut novelist Stephens begins her story in Seoul, South Korea, where best friends and fellow Korean-American adoptees Mindy and Lisa have gone to find their birthparents with the help of the MotherFinders agency. Lisa is ambivalent about her heritage and too reliant on Mindy to fill the void left by an absentee adoptive father. Lisa struggles with the fact that “the adopted child is a lie, her family a fiction,” and one of the only ways she finds solace is by writing; Mindy suggested long ago that Lisa become a writer, but Lisa hasn’t yet found a way to make it her profession. As the book begins, the two friends are having a falling out over Lisa's partying, and Mindy kicks Lisa out of their hotel room. Lisa continues hanging out with Harrison, the MotherFinders’ uber-handsome fixer, who tricks her into traveling with him. The story takes a strange turn. Lisa is kidnapped and wakes up a prisoner in an extravagant compound, “the captive of a lunatic." She meets a cast of unusual international characters, several of whom look to be plastic surgery test cases; her captor forces her to change her appearance and records her every move. Stephens intersperses each chapter with quotes from famous adoptees, and Lisa’s fixation on the physical characteristics of race and identity twist the idea of ancestry like a fun-house mirror. “Was I, all along, someone else?” Lisa wonders, as she finally meets her mother, the surgically altered and cartoonish Honey LeBaron. Lisa learns that the heavily-surveilled compound is in North Korea, but the bigger surprise is her mother’s revelation about Lisa’s family line. Lisa re-evaluates everything she thought she knew about herself as she tries to unravel “the enigma of Honey, the anti-mother who had reached across the years and the continents to drag me back to her stone-hearted bosom,” and she plots her escape from her mother's lavish, bizarre prison. “I didn’t love her,” she says, ultimately confronting the darkness in herself, “but I recognized her, as familiar to me as my own self.”

The increasing tension and outlandishness of Stephens’ work lends itself to a poignant take on the topic of family.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-944700-74-4

Page Count: 330

Publisher: Unnamed Press

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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