Very low-key, but rewarding for patient readers.

On the lawless streets of the 19th-century Lower East Side, a 12-year-old girl’s choices seem limited to servitude or prostitution.

McKay (The Birth House, 2006), who based this story in part on her family history, makes palpable the poverty and desperation that lead a gypsy fortuneteller to sell her daughter Moth as a maid to the abusive Mrs. Wentworth. Moth matter-of-factly accepts her fate, until Mrs. Wentworth’s ill-treatment moves from blows to attacks with scissors. The kindhearted butler, Nestor, instructs her to take two pieces from Mrs. Wentworth’s jewelry box: one for him, and one for Moth to sell to the fence whose address he provides. The money doesn’t last long, her mother has vanished, and with her face covered with bruises and her hair hacked off, Moth can’t get hired for even the lowest jobs. McKay supplements Moth’s first-person narrative with marginal notes and newspaper reports provided by a female doctor (in fact, the author’s great-great-grandmother) about everything from the plight of vagrant children to the “virgin cure,” a ghastly belief that having sex with a virgin will cure a man of venereal disease. With all this background, it’s entirely understandable that Moth walks into the brothel of Miss Everett with open eyes, knowing that she’ll be fed, clothed and displayed until one of the customers pays a premium to deflower her. There’s not much plot here, only Moth’s increasing doubts as the fates of her peers at Miss Everett’s reveal that a whore’s life is only slightly better than starving, while Dr. Sadie tries to persuade her that she has other options. Strongly delineated characters and a vivid historical backdrop make up for the lack of narrative energy in this reflective novel, which quietly conveys fierce indignation about the savagery with which the rich prey on the poor in a world ruled by money.

Very low-key, but rewarding for patient readers.

Pub Date: June 26, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-114032-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012


Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014


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

Close Quickview