An overly clunky attempt to merge earthbound family drama and high-toned artsiness.

THE SADNESS

A brother and sister reunite in their Maine hometown for a few days of reckoning with their messy pasts, stalled presents, and art films.

Max and Kelly are twins who don’t have much to show for themselves as they exit their 20s. Kelly dropped out of college in Arizona and can’t hold a steady job, while Max's biggest accomplishments are an unfinished film, The Glazen Shelves, and an obsession with its lead actress, who's gone missing. Kelly has returned to Portland because she has a line on her absent father, who might be able to assist her financially, but Max is disinclined to help—he’s more fixated on the city’s festival celebrating Land Without Water, a high-atmosphere, critically acclaimed film that was made in Portland. Perhaps that film’s female lead, in town for the festival, can help Max center himself? These siblings are a troubled pair and, in Rybeck’s hands, less cohesive and engaging than they have the potential to be. Max is meant to be socially inept, but at times comes off as borderline sociopathic, between incidents that involve near-kidnapping and public nudity. And Kelly, supposedly the centering figure, largely mopes through the proceedings. Such flaws, combined with some plodding prose and clumsy figurative language—“her skin looks stitched together from money” is an odd way to say somebody appears wealthy—make this novel feels as unfinished as Max’s magnum opus. That’s unfortunate, because Rybeck is an interesting thinker about movies, and the back and forths about film have the nerdy enthusiasm of a Criterion Collection commentary. The novel takes its title from a theory Max got from his mother about how a great movie feels “like the director was stranded on an island and starving and lonely and that cinema was the only way of escape.” It’s a nice concept for the nature of creative inspiration. But execution matters too.

An overly clunky attempt to merge earthbound family drama and high-toned artsiness.

Pub Date: June 14, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-939419-70-5

Page Count: 286

Publisher: Unnamed Press

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2016

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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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