Not for Oprah’s Book Club—but readers willing to be lectured will be suitably rewarded.

THE BIOGRAPHER’S TALE

An academic who forsakes the realm of concepts and theories for the quotidian world of “things” is the unlikely—and quite likable—protagonist of Byatt’s formidably learned latest, which echoes rather loudly her Booker Prize–winning Possession (1999).

When Phineas G. Nanson, whose notebooks we are reading, grows tired of postgraduate arcana and decides “to stop being a post-structuralist literary critic,” a mentor’s suggestion leads to his absorption with the late biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose magnum opus was his acclaimed three-volume study of Victorian writer-adventurer Sir Elmer Bole—imagined as an amalgam of Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, and perhaps Thomas Babington Macaulay (with just a dollop of Arthur Conan Doyle added). Phineas’s hopes of writing a biography of the biographer are complicated by his serendipitous discovery of three “documents” that were presumably ur-materials for an unwritten triple biography—of, as clues about its subjects gradually clarify, Carl Linnaeus, Henrik Ibsen, and anthropologist-eugenicist Sir Francis Galton. Nor is rummaging about in libraries all. The ever-susceptible Phineas becomes involved with two unusual and irresistible women: Destry-Scholes’s scholarly niece Vera Alphage, who works in a hospital and privately collects X-rays; and “bee taxonomist” (and “eco-warrior”) Fulla Biefield, with whom Phineas soon finds himself plunging through forests in search and defense of the endangered stag beetle. Though this and other similarly loopy sequences are great fun to read, Byatt offers relatively little story, and a top-heavy load of arch speculation about the conflict between Art (Vera) and Life (Fulla), the likelihood that biographers (especially the resourceful Destry-Scholes) invent as much as they record, and the caveat that the “search for authenticity in scholarship can have its dangers.” It’s dry, all right, but admirers of Possession (and a somewhat similar novel, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes) probably won’t mind.

Not for Oprah’s Book Club—but readers willing to be lectured will be suitably rewarded.

Pub Date: Jan. 24, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-41114-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2000

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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Like the many-windowed mansion at its center, this richly furnished novel gives brilliantly clear views into the lives it...

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THE DUTCH HOUSE

Their mother's disappearance cements an unbreakable connection between a pair of poor-little-rich-kid siblings.

Like The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer or Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach, this is a deeply pleasurable book about a big house and the family that lives in it. Toward the end of World War II, real estate developer and landlord Cyril Conroy surprises his wife, Elna, with the keys to a mansion in the Elkins Park neighborhood of Philadelphia. Elna, who had no idea how much money her husband had amassed and still thought they were poor, is appalled by the luxurious property, which comes fully furnished and complete with imposing portraits of its former owners (Dutch people named VanHoebeek) as well as a servant girl named Fluffy. When her son, Danny, is 3 and daughter, Maeve, is 10, Elna's antipathy for the place sends her on the lam—first occasionally, then permanently. This leaves the children with the household help and their rigid, chilly father, but the difficulties of the first year pale when a stepmother and stepsisters appear on the scene. Then those problems are completely dwarfed by further misfortune. It's Danny who tells the story, and he's a wonderful narrator, stubborn in his positions, devoted to his sister, and quite clear about various errors—like going to medical school when he has no intention of becoming a doctor—while utterly committed to them. "We had made a fetish out of our disappointment," he says at one point, "fallen in love with it." Casually stated but astute observations about human nature are Patchett's (Commonwealth, 2016, etc.) stock in trade, and she again proves herself a master of aging an ensemble cast of characters over many decades. In this story, only the house doesn't change. You will close the book half believing you could drive to Elkins Park and see it.

Like the many-windowed mansion at its center, this richly furnished novel gives brilliantly clear views into the lives it contains.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-296367-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

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