Hard to believe this listless, modestly amusing tale won the Netherlands’ prestigious AKO Prize.


Dutch author Grunberg (Silent Extras, 2001, etc.) traces the rise and fall and rise of a literary writer whose sine waves of desperation are ultimately evened out by his unlikely authorship of a cookbook.

The novel takes the form of Robert Mehlman’s “unpublished autobiography,” presented by son Harpo. Seemingly intended as an explanation to his son of the writer’s bizarre behavior over the course of two decades, its main concerns are Mehlman’s love life and the creation of his cookbook. (Asides cover everything from his multiple affairs to book projects both realized and forgotten.) As the narrative begins, the author’s unstable marriage to a psychiatrist he calls the “Fairytale Princess” is disrupted by the arrival of the “Empty Vessel,” a woman who makes cappuccinos at the local coffeebar. Together, the Empty Vessel and Mehlman spend a directionless few days in Atlantic City, gambling away the last of his money even as his credit cards are overdrawn. The affair meanders here and there, with no particular purpose apparent other than to give Mehlman a chance to toss off such continental-sounding epigrams as “hate is the sea into which longing flows down together.” Meanwhile, having agreed to write a “literary cookbook,” he places a newspaper ad looking for contributions. Polish-Jewish Cooking in 69 Recipes becomes an international sensation, earning Mehlman all the money he’ll ever need. The volume is hailed as a monument of reconciliation between Germans and Jews that will allow both to “keep the home fires burning after Auschwitz”— a mildly tasteless jape typical of the gauzy brand of humor peddled here. The text seems ably translated, if only because it’s difficult to imagine a rendering more apt to the original that might have restored such a desultory work to any kind of greatness.

Hard to believe this listless, modestly amusing tale won the Netherlands’ prestigious AKO Prize.

Pub Date: July 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-59051-126-3

Page Count: 292

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2004

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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. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.


Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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