When you read Packer, you’ll know you’re in the hands of a writer who knows what she’s doing. A marvelously absorbing novel.

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THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE

A young doctor buys a piece of land in a place that will later be known as Silicon Valley, building a house that will shape his family for decades.

Packer (Swim Back to Me, 2011, etc.) is an expert at complicated relationships; she likes to show more than two sides to every story. Who's responsible for the fracturing of the Blair family? The obvious answer is Penny, a woman oppressed by domesticity, who retreats from her husband and four children to spend all her time in the shed—she calls it her studio—where she works on collages and mugs made of too-thick pottery, eventually even sleeping there. Or could her husband, Bill, a pediatrician with endless patience and empathy for kids, have pushed his wife away? Perhaps it was James, the youngest (and unplanned) child, a holy terror from the day he was born, who tipped his family over the edge. In beautifully precise prose, Packer tells the Blairs’ story, alternating chapters between the past, when the children were young, and the present, four years after their father’s death, when they each get a chance to tell their own stories in the first person. While James has bounced around the world, his siblings—Robert, a doctor; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; and Ryan, a teacher—all live near their childhood home, which James wants to sell. Emotions have never had so many shadings as in Packer’s fiction; she can tease apart every degree of ambivalence in her characters, multiplying that exponentially when everyone has different desires and they all worry about finding fulfillment while also caring for each other—except, perhaps, Penny. But though we rarely see Penny’s perspective on why she withdrew from her family, we can fill in the blanks; it’s the 1960s and ’70s, a time when women were searching for a larger role in the world. Packer seems to set Penny up as the villain, but even that view becomes complicated by the end.

When you read Packer, you’ll know you’re in the hands of a writer who knows what she’s doing. A marvelously absorbing novel.

Pub Date: April 7, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4767-1045-7

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2015

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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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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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