An imperfect but ambitious family saga that invites us to consider the personal and emotional stakes of political choices.

THE NESTING DOLLS

The stories of five generations of Soviet Jewish women come to light as a Brighton Beach family prepares to celebrate an anniversary.

In 1930s Odessa, Daria Gordon seems to have it all. Her new husband, a refined pianist who, to her mother’s delight, hails from a social class slightly above her own, is smitten with her. But their fortunes quickly turn when they and their two daughters are deported as enemies of the state, allegedly having been overheard speaking German. As laborers in Siberia, they encounter extreme hardship, and Daria turns to an unexpected source for help, embarking on a relationship that will indelibly change the course of her family’s life. At this point the narrative jumps to the 1970s and shifts to the perspective of Daria’s granddaughter Natasha, a gifted math student in Odessa whose ambitions are thwarted by state anti-Semitism. Her desire to broaden the horizons of her world, mixed with her infatuation with a charismatic young refusenik, sets her on a path that propels the narrative forward again to the present-day Russian-speaking Brooklyn enclave of Brighton Beach, once more skipping two generations to the perspective of Natasha’s granddaughter Zoe, who is dealing with her own romantic entanglements. The novel’s title, though perhaps unoriginal, is appropriate: With each section, Adams reveals another layer of the matryoshka doll that is Zoe’s history and identity. As the family prepares to celebrate Natasha and her husband’s 45th wedding anniversary, about which Natasha is strangely unenthusiastic, Zoe comes to understand how her foremothers’ choices have brought her family to the present moment. Adams’ prose leaves much to be desired; she often relies too heavily on melodramatic clichés instead of letting the already soap-opera–esque dynamism of her story speak for itself. But ultimately, the novel adds a degree of nuance to a historical narrative that is often flattened: It depicts some of the subtleties and complexities of being a Jew in the Soviet Union, offering a partial corrective to the frequent oversimplification of a chapter of history that is anything but simple. Moreover, it is a compelling example of how deeply personal stories can lie beneath the surface of sweeping histories.

An imperfect but ambitious family saga that invites us to consider the personal and emotional stakes of political choices.

Pub Date: July 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-291094-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it’s written.

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS

The Herculean efforts required to assemble the Oxford English Dictionary are retold, this time from a fictionalized, distaff point of view, in Williams’ debut novel.

Esme Nicoll, the motherless young daughter of a lexicographer working in the Scriptorium—in reality, a garden shed in Oxford where a team led by James Murray, one of the OED’s editors, toiled—accompanies her father to work frequently. The rigor and passion with which the project is managed is apparent to the sensitive and curious Esme, as is the fact that the editorial team of men labors under the influence of Victorian-era mores. Esme begins a clandestine operation to rescue words which have been overlooked or intentionally omitted from the epic dictionary. Her childhood undertaking becomes a lifelong endeavor, and her efforts to validate the words which flew under the (not yet invented) radar of the OED gatekeepers gain traction at the same time the women’s suffrage movement fructifies in England. The looming specter of World War I lends tension to Esme’s personal saga while a disparate cast of secondary characters adds pathos and depth. Underlying this panoramic account are lexicographical and philosophical interrogatives: Who owns language, does language reflect or affect, who chooses what is appropriate, why is one meaning worthier than another, what happens when a word mutates in meaning? (For example, the talismanic word first salvaged by Esme, bondmaid, pops up with capricious irregularity and amorphous meaning throughout the lengthy narrative.) Williams provides readers with detailed background and biographical information pointing to extensive research about the OED and its editors, many of whom appear as characters in Esme’s life. The result is a satisfying amalgam of truth and historical fiction.

Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it’s written.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-16019-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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