This could be a family epic crudely whittled down or a sketch of one. Either way, this book doesn't match its ambition.

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IN THE LAND OF THE LIVING

Two generations of men tussle with love, medicine and fatherhood in this rambling follow-up to Ratner’s 2009 debut, The Jump Artist.

The heroes of this story are Isidore Auberon, who transcends his abusive Jewish-immigrant home in Cleveland to become a respected doctor, and his son Leo, who’s frustrated by his inability to live up to his late father’s legacy. Ratner frames the story, particularly Isidore’s part of it, as a kind of modern-day medieval myth: Chapters about him have lengthy, faux-Arthurian titles (“Of Isidore’s Quest for a Damosel for to Make a Home…."). Little in his story, though, seems worthy of such finery—Isidore joins the Merchant Marine, becomes a doctor, marries and settles down, events that don’t quite merit Ratner’s efforts to inflate them. And if the point is that Leo overestimates his father’s importance, his own share of the narrative is similarly pedestrian. There are flashes of humor in Leo’s adolescent anxieties about girls and getting into an Ivy League school, and the closing section in which he hits the road with his brother gets some energy from the eccentric characters they meet. But this novel is persistently, frustratingly unsteady on its feet from start to finish. Ratner (himself a doctor) fails to settle on a consistent tone, shuttling from pungent sentences to dialogue full of pop-culture riffs to melodrama to punning irony—the mood is seriocomic, but the line between what’s serious and what’s comic feels uncertain and uncontrolled. Max has the essential elements of a great Salinger-esque hero—bright, precocious, haunted by family—but we don’t get to truly know him until a third of the way through the book, and his frustrations with dad never gain clear focus.

This could be a family epic crudely whittled down or a sketch of one. Either way, this book doesn't match its ambition.

Pub Date: March 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-316-20609-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2013

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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