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A FINE IMITATION

Brock sketches a hazy outline of 1920s high society as seen through the eyes of a woman who would be free from its hollow...

A young socialite in Jazz Age New York City must decide between a comfortable but stifling life with her distant husband and the prospect of romance with a mysterious painter.

Brock’s debut novel examines the social and familial pressures faced by Vera Bellington, trapped in the gilded cage of a loveless marriage and bound by rules of decorum enforced by her imposing mother. Despite an impeccable education in art history from Vassar College, where she let down her hair with scandalous Southern gal pal Bea Stillman, Vera’s treated like a set piece by a husband who’s more interested in conducting “business” than paying attention to his wife. When Vera’s mother asks her to dust off her art history background and examine a painting for purchase, Vera unwittingly stumbles on a forgery ring that dredges up her repressed past and opens the door to a new acquaintance, the romantic muralist Emil Hallan. What follows is a world of trouble for both Vera and Hallan, as neither has the cunning required to stage a private affair. Predictably, their time together dissolves into misplaced suspicion and existential angst. As the novel alternates between Vera’s past at Vassar and her present unraveling, the story hints at scandals both small and large but never quite delivers on either front. This larger structural problem is exacerbated by weak secondary character development; the smoke and mirrors surrounding Hallan might just hide the fact that he’s more of a cardboard cutout fantasy than a flesh-and-blood artist, while poor Bea is left to languish in the past, along with all her vim and vigor. Since Vera’s privilege shields her from dealing with the consequences of betrayal—both of her true nature and of her friendship with Bea—even would-be antagonists offer pat advice that steers the flailing socialite toward an inevitable break with her family. If only we all had the ability to hire an avuncular private detective who swoops in at the ninth hour to confirm the meaningful struggles of our lives are always fraught, always internal.

Brock sketches a hazy outline of 1920s high society as seen through the eyes of a woman who would be free from its hollow promises. Somehow her main character wallows in indecision, even as circumstances allow for the possibility of personal growth and reinvention.

Pub Date: May 3, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-90511-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Hunter’s debut novel tracks the experiences of her family members during the Holocaust.

Sol and Nechuma Kurc, wealthy, cultured Jews in Radom, Poland, are successful shop owners; they and their grown children live a comfortable lifestyle. But that lifestyle is no protection against the onslaught of the Holocaust, which eventually scatters the members of the Kurc family among several continents. Genek, the oldest son, is exiled with his wife to a Siberian gulag. Halina, youngest of all the children, works to protect her family alongside her resistance-fighter husband. Addy, middle child, a composer and engineer before the war breaks out, leaves Europe on one of the last passenger ships, ending up thousands of miles away. Then, too, there are Mila and Felicia, Jakob and Bella, each with their own share of struggles—pain endured, horrors witnessed. Hunter conducted extensive research after learning that her grandfather (Addy in the book) survived the Holocaust. The research shows: her novel is thorough and precise in its details. It’s less precise in its language, however, which frequently relies on cliché. “You’ll get only one shot at this,” Halina thinks, enacting a plan to save her husband. “Don’t botch it.” Later, Genek, confronting a routine bit of paperwork, must decide whether or not to hide his Jewishness. “That form is a deal breaker,” he tells himself. “It’s life and death.” And: “They are low, it seems, on good fortune. And something tells him they’ll need it.” Worse than these stale phrases, though, are the moments when Hunter’s writing is entirely inadequate for the subject matter at hand. Genek, describing the gulag, calls the nearest town “a total shitscape.” This is a low point for Hunter’s writing; elsewhere in the novel, it’s stronger. Still, the characters remain flat and unknowable, while the novel itself is predictable. At this point, more than half a century’s worth of fiction and film has been inspired by the Holocaust—a weighty and imposing tradition. Hunter, it seems, hasn’t been able to break free from her dependence on it.

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-56308-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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