A slow-paced, satisfying read.

TAKING CARE OF CLEO

Acoming-of-age story and a family saga fit comfortably together in this overstuffed easy chair of a novel.

The form of the novel is familiar enough—a sprawling narrative focusing on one fateful summer in the life of a family—but its plot and narrative tone are more complex than usual for the genre. In a small town in Michigan in 1928, the Bearwald family—distinguished father, vibrant mother and two young adult daughters—comes undone. The upright and respected owners of a clothing store, the Bearwalds are the only Jewish family in their town, and the only family with an autistic daughter. Their oldest girl, Cleo, is clever but erratic, and the youngest, narrator Rebecca, is responsible and dependable. Although the family seems solid, the summer’s events show that the relationship of mutual caretaking between the daughters is the glue that holds everyone together. Once the sisters go their own ways, the family falls apart. How they become individuals is the most unlikely aspect of the story: A bootlegger’s ship runs aground after a late-night shootout, Cleo restores it and sells the illegal liquor she finds on it. Meanwhile, Cleo’s mother, tired of being a country mouse, leads people to believe that her husband heads a bootlegging gang, thus provoking retaliation from actual bootleggers. What really sustains this is not the Byzantine plot, but the precisely drawn motives behind the characters’ actions. Just when it seems as though the author will have all the loose ends tied up, he lingers with painful clarity on the dynamics of the family: the way that Mrs. Bearwald’s desire for excitement leads to shameful social performances, the way that Rebecca’s desire for freedom manifests itself in her declaration that her beloved sister Cleo is so sick as to be outside the social order. The depiction of the Bearwalds’ evolution as people and as a family is pitch-perfect.

A slow-paced, satisfying read.

Pub Date: April 18, 2006

ISBN: 1-59051-213-8

Page Count: 360

Publisher: Handsel/Other Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2006

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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Less bleak than the subject matter might warrant—Hannah’s default outlook is sunny—but still, a wrenching depiction of war’s...

HOME FRONT

 The traumatic homecoming of a wounded warrior.

The daughter of alcoholics who left her orphaned at 17, Jolene “Jo” Zarkades found her first stable family in the military: She’s served over two decades, first in the army, later with the National Guard. A helicopter pilot stationed near Seattle, Jo copes as competently at home, raising two daughters, Betsy and Lulu, while trying to dismiss her husband Michael’s increasing emotional distance. Jo’s mettle is sorely tested when Michael informs her flatly that he no longer loves her. Four-year-old Lulu clamors for attention while preteen Betsy, mean-girl-in-training, dismisses as dweeby her former best friend, Seth, son of Jo’s confidante and fellow pilot, Tami. Amid these challenges comes the ultimate one: Jo and Tami are deployed to Iraq. Michael, with the help of his mother, has to take over the household duties, and he rapidly learns that parenting is much harder than his wife made it look. As Michael prepares to defend a PTSD-afflicted veteran charged with Murder I for killing his wife during a dissociative blackout, he begins to understand what Jolene is facing and to revisit his true feelings for her. When her helicopter is shot down under insurgent fire, Jo rescues Tami from the wreck, but a young crewman is killed. Tami remains in a coma and Jo, whose leg has been amputated, returns home to a difficult rehabilitation on several fronts. Her nightmares in which she relives the crash and other horrors she witnessed, and her pain, have turned Jo into a person her daughters now fear (which in the case of bratty Betsy may not be such a bad thing). Jo can't forgive Michael for his rash words. Worse, she is beginning to remind Michael more and more of his homicide client. Characterization can be cursory: Michael’s earlier callousness, left largely unexplained, undercuts the pathos of his later change of heart. 

Less bleak than the subject matter might warrant—Hannah’s default outlook is sunny—but still, a wrenching depiction of war’s aftermath.

Pub Date: Jan. 31, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-57720-9

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

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