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THE AIR WE BREATHE

A marvel of intelligent design, and a truly original cautionary tale, from one of the most interesting and unconventional of...

Shadows revealed by X-ray machines and generated by the gathering momentum of World War I darken and enrich the texture of Barrett’s demanding, rewarding sixth novel (Servants of the Map, 2002, etc.).

Featuring descendants of characters in her earlier books, it’s a crowded group portrait filled by the patients, staff and outside “help” brought together in 1916 at a tuberculosis sanatorium (Tamarack State) in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Narrated by the patients (identified only as “we”), it describes the facility and its operation, gradually narrowing focus to concentrate on recent Polish-German immigrant Leo Marburg (whose peregrinations have prevented him from completing an education in chemistry), his fellow patient and eventual antagonist, wealthy cement-plant owner Miles Fairchild (who resides in a comfortable “cure house” outside Tamarack State), as well as the three women who touch, and alter, both men’s lives. This trio includes X-ray technician Irene (a victim of the new science she has mastered), who welcomes Leo as a promising kindred spirit; teenaged Naomi (who becomes Miles’s driver, but not the sweetheart he yearns for); and “ward maid” Eudora, who arouses in Leo the passions Naomi (who loves him, and not Miles) cannot arouse. Mounting evidence that the United States will enter the European war (very skillfully layered in) heightens tensions, as do the presence of a tin box entrusted to Leo’s care, a fire of suspicious origins and Miles’s patriotic fervor, which turns weekly discussion groups he has organized into a proving ground for one’s loyalty. This richly detailed, highly intelligent novel is too slowly paced to elicit reader interest early on, but it builds and persuades most impressively, creating a compelling picture of how “together, without noticing exactly what was happening, we’d contributed to destroying our own world.”

A marvel of intelligent design, and a truly original cautionary tale, from one of the most interesting and unconventional of all contemporary American writers.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-393-06108-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2007

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THE NIGHTINGALE

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

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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