Artsy ruminations aside, an entertaining, psychologically rich story of a sometimes giddy, sometimes painful awakening.

QUEEN OF THE OWLS

A frustrated wife tries to get her groove back with the help of a sexy photographer and inspiration from the artist Georgia O’Keeffe in this debut novel.

At the age of 34, with two preschool kids, Elizabeth Crawford finds herself going crazy in a passionless marriage to her husband, Ben, whose lack of desire for her leaves her feeling “unloved and unbeautiful.” She’s also hit a roadblock in her Ph.D. dissertation on 20th-century painter O’Keeffe, struggling to figure out how a sojourn in Hawaii provoked the artist to switch from creating lush flowers to producing pictures of cow skulls in the desert. Assistance on both problems materializes in the form of Richard Ferris, a handsome photographer who turns his smoldering gaze on Elizabeth in their tai chi class. Richard is fascinated by her O’Keeffe theories and proposes a daring way for her to connect more deeply with the painter’s psyche: pose nude for him to re-create a famous series of photographs taken of the artist in the 1920s by her lover, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. During the photo sessions, Elizabeth progresses from severe bashfulness at loosening a few buttons to ebullience as more clothing comes off. She feels “her skin tingling, alert and alive,” while the heightening sexual tension with Richard renders her “dizzy, weak with the desire that flooded her body.” Her walk on the wild side leads to more exposure than she bargained for and eventually forces her to reconsider her attitudes toward Richard, her marriage, O’Keeffe, and herself. The art history musings in Probst’s yearning tale of renewal—“Her core’s still there, her female essence, but it isn’t accessible, not like it is in the flower paintings she did earlier”—often feel murky and uninvolving. Fortunately, the author paints a vivid and absorbing portrait of domestic life—she’s a superb observer of children’s moods and antics—in an unhappy marriage that limps along on deadening routine and sedated feelings. (After a perfunctory coupling with Ben, Elizabeth “knew they’d had sex the same way she knew that the rent was due or that she needed to move a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer.”) Readers will root for Elizabeth—and wince in amusement at her pratfalls—as she strikes out in improbable new directions.

Artsy ruminations aside, an entertaining, psychologically rich story of a sometimes giddy, sometimes painful awakening.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63152-890-3

Page Count: 330

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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