A novel that could have used more melodrama or even drama.

THE CAVENDON WOMEN

Second installment of Bradford’s answer to Downton Abbey.

Most of the major Downton characters, both downstairs and upstairs, have their counterparts in Bradford’s saga of the Inghams, who are striving to maintain their stately home after World War I, when, as Downton viewers know, the British government imposed punishing taxes on the aristocracy. Charles Ingham, the sixth Earl of Mowbray, has not lost the family fortune to foolish investments, but he has married his true love, Charlotte, matriarch of the Swann family, which has served the Inghams for more than 300 years. Most of the family greets the news with sanguinity, including the Earl’s heir, Miles, and his four daughters, whose given names all start with D, a move which is intended to charm but mostly confuses. Even Lady Gwendolyn, the book’s crusty clone of the dowager countess of Grantham, approves the match—although the Swanns are commoners, they are not just any commoners. Only Aunt Lavinia complains and is ostracized by the family until, many pages later, the tragic reason for her snark attack is discovered. There are other token attempts to introduce excitement. One of the D daughters is being slandered at work over a long-ago lesbian entanglement (a problem soon mooted by her respectable betrothal), and the Earl’s ex-wife, Felicity, has absconded with the family jewels. Cecily Swann, a successful fashion entrepreneur in the vein of Bradford’s Emma Harte series, has resumed her affair with Miles even though his estranged wife, Clarissa, won’t divorce him—her obesity has removed her from the remarriage market. However, as if Bradford had no real desire to deal with unpleasantness and would prefer to wax rhapsodic about her favorite subjects—décor, money, and beautiful people—every possibility of interesting conflict is quickly dispatched. The family fortune is only briefly threatened. A desultory murder mystery involving peripheral characters and another of the D’s comes too late to leaven the dullness.

A novel that could have used more melodrama or even drama.

Pub Date: March 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-250-03238-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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