Luminous work from a gifted writer.

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LOVE STORIES IN THIS TOWN

In her first collection, novelist Ward (Forgive Me, 2008, etc.) gently and discreetly invites us into her characters’ lives.

The author’s quiet, understated stories pack a paradoxical punch. They also reveal their author as a master of the beguiling opening sentence. “It’s a crappy coincidence that on the day James asks for my hand in marriage, there is a masturbator loose in the library” lures us into “Butte as in Beautiful” and compels us to go on. Many of the stories have multiple narrative threads, because Ward’s characters live on both personal and social planes. In the heartbreaking “The Stars Are Bright in Texas,” the narrator and her husband fly to Houston to look at houses two days after she’s had a miscarriage. The first day of looking at McMansions distresses them still further, but they finally find the perfect home, only to be outbid on it. “There will be another,” promises their realtor, and the narrator has a piercing epiphany: “There would be another, there would. But I wanted the one that was gone.” The narrator of “Shakespeare.com” hates her work environment, in which “you could like Hello Kitty, and you could like gas station hot dogs, but talking about liking your husband was queer.” The final six pieces, clustered as “Lola Stories,” follow the eponymous protagonist through eight or so years of her life, from getting jilted by a man who weds Miss Montana, through her impulsive marriage to a geologist, to the birth of her two children, one of whom she fears might be autistic. Along the way we learn of Lola’s mother Nan, who disapproves of the marriage, and also of Fred, Nan’s dysfunctional runaway husband, whose cruelty and craziness mar every relationship he engages in.

Luminous work from a gifted writer.

Pub Date: April 21, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8011-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2009

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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