No big points made here, just strong storytelling combined with thoughtful exploration of difficult issues.

LOVE AND TREASURE

A necklace with a peacock pendant raises provocative questions about loss, guilt and recovery in Waldman’s intriguing new novel (Red Hook Road, 2010, etc.).

The necklace is one of thousands of items confiscated from Hungary’s Jews and found on a train seized in Austria by the U.S. Army in 1945. Assigned to guard the train, Lt. Jack Wiseman falls in love with Ilona, a Holocaust survivor. When she leaves him for a new life in Palestine, the devastated Jack takes the necklace as a memento. In 2013, dying of pancreatic cancer, he asks his granddaughter Natalie to return it. But to whom? She learns in Budapest that the necklace was depicted in Portrait of Frau E, a lost painting by a Hungarian Jewish artist who died during World War II. Amitai, an Israeli-born specialist in the recovery of art stolen during the Holocaust, persuades Natalie to join his search for Portrait of Frau E in hopes of identifying the necklace’s rightful owner. Painting and necklace both wind up in unexpected hands, and the narrative rolls back to trace the history of “Frau E.” Her maiden name is Nina Schillinger, and in 1913 she is a 19-year-old feminist whose desire to study medicine has prompted her appalled parents to send her to a psychoanalyst. (His account of their sessions provides a wickedly funny satire of sexist, sex-obsessed Freudian analysis.) Waldman paints morally complex portraits in her three linked stories. Jack’s superiors blithely furnish their quarters with tableware and crystal from the Hungarian train; the appealing Amitai retrieves looted art for profit; Budapest’s prewar Jewish bourgeoisie places crippling constraints on its daughters. Yet all three stories also show love prompting people to transcend their limitations and behave with new compassion, though Waldman is too honest not to acknowledge that it’s not always easy to do the right thing—or even to know what that is.

No big points made here, just strong storytelling combined with thoughtful exploration of difficult issues.

Pub Date: April 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-53354-6

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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