KAATERSKILL FALLS

Another absorbing, albeit low-key foray into the world of Orthodox Jews, by the author of two story collections: Total Immersion (1989) and The Family Markowitz (1996). Covering two years (1976—78) in the life of the devout community led by Rav Elijah Kirshner, Goodman chronicles spiritual and psychological journeys taken by various group members. The principal events occur in the Kirshners’ summer retreat, the upstate town of Kaaterskill, with a few key scenes in their New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. Model Orthodox wife and mother Elizabeth Shulman has always found the Rav’s strict laws as natural as the air she breathes, but now her experiences running a kosher store in Kaaterskill expose tensions between Orthodox Judaism’s strictly defined role for women and Elizabeth’s ambitions for herself and her daughters. As the Rav’s health worsens, he softens toward his apostate son, scholarly, skeptical Jeremy, to the distress of long-suffering Isaiah, who has spent years as their father’s unthanked amanuensis and putative but unacknowledged successor. Conflicts also simmer between Andras Melish, whose primary loyalty is to his elderly sisters, and his much younger wife, Nina; between the determined-to-be-pious Nina and their rebellious daughter, Renee; and in the breast of Elizabeth’s daughter Chani, fascinated by modern Israel even though the Kirshners don—t consider it a true Jewish homeland. Though all Goodman’s people are believably complex and emotionally engaging, the best character here is the surprisingly cynical Rav himself, slightly contemptuous of disciples who lack his grounding in the more worldly culture of pre-Holocaust Europe. Subplots involving Kaaterskill’s Yankee residents and a local real estate developer are less interesting, and, as in The Family Markowitz, Goodman doesn’t develop much narrative momentum. The only really dramatic moment comes when Elizabeth loses rabbinical permission to operate her store; otherwise the author relies on quiet moments of tentative reconciliation to wrap up her story. You don’t read Goodman for thrills, but for rich characterizations and faultless evocation of a cloistered culture—pleasures in ample supply here.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 1998

ISBN: 0-385-32839-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1998

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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