Ambitious, accomplished and intelligent in the author’s vintage manner.

THE CHILDREN’S BOOK

Byatt (A Whistling Woman, 2002, etc.) encompasses the paradigm shift from Victorian to modern England in a sweeping tale of four families.

The deeper subject, however, is the complex, not always benign bond that attaches children to adults. As the novel opens in 1895, Olive Wellwood seems the model New Woman: popular author of books that reinvent fairy tales for contemporary children, tolerant wife to Fabian Society stalwart Humphry, devoted mother pregnant with her seventh baby. She takes in Philip Warren, a working-class boy who longs to make art, and connects him with Benedict Fludd, a master potter whose family belongs to the Wellwoods’ progressive, artistic circle. As the long, dense narrative unfolds, we see the dark side of these idealists’ lives. Three of the children Olive is raising are not hers with Humphry; in another household, magnificent works of art reveal repellent acts of incest. The gothic sexual interconnections recall Bloomsbury, and Olive is clearly a gloss on E. Nesbit, but this is no mere roman à clef. Byatt’s concern is the vast area where utopian visions collide with human nature. Her adult subjects, she writes, “saw, in a way that earlier generations had not, that children were people, with identities and desires and intelligences…But they saw this, so many of them, out of a desire of their own for perpetual childhood.” World War I forces everyone to grow up. Only one son of this socialist set becomes a conscientious objector; the others serve and most of them die. The pace, positively stately in the novel’s first half, speeds up and becomes unduly hasty in the final section. But Byatt has painted her large cast of characters so richly that we care about all of them even when their fates are summarized in a sentence. In the last chapter, the variously battered survivors reunite and dream once more: “They could make magical plays for a new generation of children.”

Ambitious, accomplished and intelligent in the author’s vintage manner.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-27209-6

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2009

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

THE AUTHENTICITY PROJECT

A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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