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FRENCH BRAID

More lovely work from Tyler, still vital and creative at 80.

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In her 24th novel, Tyler once again unravels the tangled threads of family life.

This familiar subject always seems fresh in her hands because Tyler draws her characters and their interactions in such specific and revealing detail. Robin and Mercy Garrett and their three children seem oddly distanced from each other when we meet them during a 1959 summer vacation. Robin talks a lot about what everything costs, and Mercy is frequently absent painting the local landscape. Fifteen-year-old Lily is also not around much; deprived of her Baltimore boyfriend, she’s taken up with an older boy who bossy, judgmental older sister Alice is pleased to opine is only using her. Seven-year-old David rejects Robin’s attempts to get him in the water in favor of inventing elaborate storylines for the plastic GIs he’s recast as veterinarians. As usual, Tyler deftly sets the scene and broadly outlines characters who will change and deepen over time as the Garretts traverse 60 years; individual chapters offer the perspective of each parent and sibling (plus three members of the third generation). We need to get inside their heads, because the Garretts seldom discuss what’s really on their minds, the primary example being the fact that once David goes to college, Mercy gets a studio and eventually stops living with Robin altogether. All the children know, but since she appears for family gatherings—including a weird but moving surprise 50th anniversary party Robin throws—no one ever mentions it. Tyler gives the final word to David, who, like his mother, has maintained tenuous family ties while deliberately keeping his distance. Families are like the French braids that left their daughter’s hair in waves even after she undid them, he tells his wife: “You’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” It’s a characteristically homely, resonant metaphor from a writer who understands that the domestic world can contain the universe.

More lovely work from Tyler, still vital and creative at 80.

Pub Date: March 22, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-32109-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2022

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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JAMES

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as told from the perspective of a more resourceful and contemplative Jim than the one you remember.

This isn’t the first novel to reimagine Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, but the audacious and prolific Everett dives into the very heart of Twain’s epochal odyssey, shifting the central viewpoint from that of the unschooled, often credulous, but basically good-hearted Huck to the more enigmatic and heroic Jim, the Black slave with whom the boy escapes via raft on the Mississippi River. As in the original, the threat of Jim’s being sold “down the river” and separated from his wife and daughter compels him to run away while figuring out what to do next. He's soon joined by Huck, who has faked his own death to get away from an abusive father, ramping up Jim’s panic. “Huck was supposedly murdered and I’d just run away,” Jim thinks. “Who did I think they would suspect of the heinous crime?” That Jim can, as he puts it, “[do] the math” on his predicament suggests how different Everett’s version is from Twain’s. First and foremost, there's the matter of the Black dialect Twain used to depict the speech of Jim and other Black characters—which, for many contemporary readers, hinders their enjoyment of his novel. In Everett’s telling, the dialect is a put-on, a manner of concealment, and a tactic for survival. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” Jim explains. He also discloses that, in violation of custom and law, he learned to read the books in Judge Thatcher’s library, including Voltaire and John Locke, both of whom, in dreams and delirium, Jim finds himself debating about human rights and his own humanity. With and without Huck, Jim undergoes dangerous tribulations and hairbreadth escapes in an antebellum wilderness that’s much grimmer and bloodier than Twain’s. There’s also a revelation toward the end that, however stunning to devoted readers of the original, makes perfect sense.

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Pub Date: March 19, 2024

ISBN: 9780385550369

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2024

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