CONTRACT WITH AN ANGEL

Greeley (Summer at the Lake, 1997, etc. etc.) returns with more High Blarney, this time with an inversion on the Faust legend in which an atheist sells his soul to an angel. While flying into Chicago’s O‘Hare airport, cynical media mogul Raymond Neenan finds the empty first-class seat beside him invaded by the brown-skinned Archangel Michael, the six-foot-six head of the heavenly armies, who’s flourishing a contract for him to sign. Neenan must sell his soul to Michael, he’s told, or go down with the plane. To sweeten the deal, the angel also gives him a brief but ecstatic taste of paradise. Neenan thinks he’s hallucinating and, with nothing to lose, signs. Foremost in the contract, he has to give up his womanizing, predatory business practices and sharply sharkish bent toward everything consumable. Gradually, though, Neenan becomes convinced that he didn—t imagine the event. In unmaking the mess he’s made of his life, the once fearsome Neenan turns cuddly with his office staff and son Vincent, romances his wife, Anna Maria (while an angelic choir that only he can hear sings joyously), accepts her advice about filming an eight-hour miniseries of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge, and decides to offer Loyola University, her alma mater, $5 million to fund four chairs in the humanities. He must also patch things up with his first wife and with the children by that marriage, who detest him. None of this provides much conflict, although Greeley clearly has a ball as the authorial angel setting miracles in motion. Amusingly, while sitting through a performance of Gounod’s Faust (whose chorus gets a blissful assist from real choirs of angels), Neenan discovers that—aside from Anna Maria—he’s spent his life seeking carbon copies of his punitive, mean-spirited, grudging mother. Will Raymond clear up his life’s mess before a death warning is fulfilled and he has to check out the light in the tunnel? Should be read with Palestrina Masses playing in the background.

Pub Date: June 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-312-86081-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Forge

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1998

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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