A historical novel about a mismatched couple spends too little time with its most interesting character.

OLGA

In a story that sweeps across a century, a woman who stays home is more engaging that her lover who explores the world.

Born near the end of the 19th century in a small town in Poland, Olga Rinke endures a childhood marked by poverty and loneliness. After her parents’ deaths, she’s raised by her cold German grandmother in a village in Pomerania. A bright and curious student, Olga finds solace in school and in her friendship and, later, more with Herbert Schröder, son of the richest man in the village. When they fall in love, his family disapproves, so they pursue their affair in secret. Restless and self-centered (and none too bright), Herbert is colonialism on the hoof. As a soldier in South West Africa during Germany’s genocide against the Herero people, he feels an occasional twitch of empathy: “But they had perished with their cattle and like cattle; they had been lying on the ground, and he had been on horseback.” Herbert, obsessed with travel and exploration, is often gone for months or years, but Olga remains faithful to him. Her instincts for community and stability run counter to his—she becomes a teacher, forms friendships, joins unions and churches, and creates a comfortable home for herself. She waits uncomplainingly for Herbert’s visits and, even after he leaves her life for good, carries a torch. Later in life, working as a seamstress, she grows close to Ferdinand, the young son of an employer. He takes over the book’s narration, recounting Olga as a mother figure and an intellectual equal with whom he remains friends for the rest of her life. The novel covers more than a century, and its swathes of historical exposition take the reader away from Olga; it’s strongest when it pauses to explore the intimate texture of her life, but those pauses are too brief. She’s an intriguing character, but Herbert isn’t, making her devotion to him a puzzle. A couple of big reveals about Olga are telegraphed so early and so broadly that they lack punch when they come.

A historical novel about a mismatched couple spends too little time with its most interesting character.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-311292-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: HarperVia/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2021

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

WISH YOU WERE HERE

A young woman finds herself at a Covid-induced crossroads in Picoult’s latest ultratopical novel.

Sotheby’s associate Diana O'Toole, age 29, and her surgical resident boyfriend, Finn, are planning a trip to the Galapagos in March 2020. But as New York City shuts down, Finn is called to do battle against Covid-19 in his hospital’s ICU and ER, while Diana, at his urging, travels to the archipelago alone. She arrives on Isabela Island just as quarantine descends and elects to stay, though her luggage was lost, her hotel is shuttered, and her Spanish is “limited.” What follows is the meticulously researched depiction Picoult readers have come to expect, of the flora and fauna of this island and both its paradisiacal and dangerous aspects. Beautiful lagoons hide riptides, spectacular volcanic vistas conceal deep pits—and penguins bite! A hotel employee known only as Abuela gives Diana shelter at her home. Luckily, Abuela’s grandson Gabriel, a former tour guide, speaks flawless English, as does his troubled daughter, Beatriz, 14, who was attending school off-island when the pandemic forced her back home. Beatriz and Diana bond over their distant and withholding mothers: Diana’s is a world-famous photographer now consigned to a memory care facility with early-onset Alzheimer’s, while Beatriz’s ran off with a somewhat less famous photographer. Despite patchy cellphone signals and Wi-Fi, emails from Finn break through, describing, also in Picoult’s spare-no-detail starkness, the horrors of his long shifts as the virus wreaks its variegated havoc and the cases and death toll mount. Diana is venturing into romantically and literally treacherous waters when Picoult yanks this novel off life-support by resorting to a flagrantly hackneyed plot device. Somehow, though, it works, thanks again to that penchant for grounding every fictional scenario in thoroughly documented fact. Throughout, we are treated to pithy if rather self-evident thematic underscoring, e.g. “You can’t plan your life….Because then you have a plan. Not a life.”

Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984818-41-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2022

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