An ambitious, if plain, tale of the fraught relationships of a Civil War–era family.

Seeds Of Magnolia

In Miller’s debut historical novel set in the years before the Civil War, a Southern family learns to navigate the shifting boundaries of race, love and history.

Austin Miller is a well-to-do slaveholder with thousands of acres to his name and slaves in multiple states. Among them are Elizabeth and her daughter, Sophia, who stay with Austin as he changes residences to keep up with his various pursuits, including politics and a law practice. Household politics takes precedence over national politics, however; although Austin treats his slaves well, he’s marked by biases and paradoxes, as he wonders about slavery’s morality. (The moral questions become more pressing when it’s revealed that Sophia has become pregnant by her owner.) Austin decides, despite his personal convictions, to fight for the South in the Civil War. His wife and slaves remain home at Magnolia Manor, where they later encounter Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman; the latter seeks to take over the manor for war housing. What makes this fictionalized account of a 19th-century American family unusual and noteworthy is that it represents the author’s attempt to come to grips with his heritage. In a fascinating personal note, author Miller explains that he’s the great-grandchild of the real-life Austin Miller and Sophia, making this novel a thorough imagining of his family’s past. Despite this, however, the novel’s prose and characters alike suffer from a lack of energy and a certain flatness. The minimal dialogue produces a distant, secondhand effect that suppresses several moments that might have otherwise been more vivid. The stylistic uniformity and plethora of details are reminiscent of an oral history, and although this may be the intended effect, some readers may find it disorienting in a novel.

An ambitious, if plain, tale of the fraught relationships of a Civil War–era family.

Pub Date: Feb. 24, 2014

ISBN: 978-1494938307

Page Count: 456

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: May 9, 2014

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A vivid sequel that strains credulity.


Fremont (After Long Silence, 1999) continues—and alters—her story of how memories of the Holocaust affected her family.

At the age of 44, the author learned that her father had disowned her, declaring her “predeceased”—or dead in his eyes—in his will. It was his final insult: Her parents had stopped speaking to her after she’d published After Long Silence, which exposed them as Jewish Holocaust survivors who had posed as Catholics in Europe and America in order to hide multilayered secrets. Here, Fremont delves further into her tortured family dynamics and shows how the rift developed. One thread centers on her life after her harrowing childhood: her education at Wellesley and Boston University, the loss of her virginity to a college boyfriend before accepting her lesbianism, her stint with the Peace Corps in Lesotho, and her decades of work as a lawyer in Boston. Another strand involves her fraught relationship with her sister, Lara, and how their difficulties relate to their father, a doctor embittered after years in the Siberian gulag; and their mother, deeply enmeshed with her own sister, Zosia, who had married an Italian count and stayed in Rome to raise a child. Fremont tells these stories with novelistic flair, ending with a surprising theory about why her parents hid their Judaism. Yet she often appears insensitive to the serious problems she says Lara once faced, including suicidal depression. “The whole point of suicide, I thought, was to succeed at it,” she writes. “My sister’s completion rate was pathetic.” Key facts also differ from those in her earlier work. After Long Silence says, for example, that the author grew up “in a small city in the Midwest” while she writes here that she grew up in “upstate New York,” changes Fremont says she made for “consistency” in the new book but that muddy its narrative waters. The discrepancies may not bother readers seeking psychological insights rather than factual accuracy, but others will wonder if this book should have been labeled a fictionalized autobiography rather than a memoir.

A vivid sequel that strains credulity.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982113-60-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A highly readable account of how solid research and personal testing of self-help techniques saved a couple's marriage after...


Self-help advice and personal reflections on avoiding spousal fights while raising children.

Before her daughter was born, bestselling author Dunn (Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?: And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask, 2009, etc.) enjoyed steady work and a happy marriage. However, once she became a mother, there never seemed to be enough time, sleep, and especially help from her husband. Little irritations became monumental obstacles between them, which led to major battles. Consequently, they turned to expensive couples' therapy to help them regain some peace in life. In a combination of memoir and advice that can be found in most couples' therapy self-help books, Dunn provides an inside look at her own vexing issues and the solutions she and her husband used to prevent them from appearing in divorce court. They struggled with age-old battles fought between men and women—e.g., frequency of sex, who does more housework, who should get up with the child in the middle of the night, why women need to have a clean house, why men need more alone time, and many more. What Dunn learned via therapy, talks with other parents, and research was that there is no perfect solution to the many dynamics that surface once couples become parents. But by using time-tested techniques, she and her husband learned to listen, show empathy, and adjust so that their former status as a happy couple could safely and peacefully morph into a happy family. Readers familiar with Dunn's honest and humorous writing will appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at her own semi-messy family life, and those who need guidance through the rough spots can glean advice while being entertained—all without spending lots of money on couples’ therapy.

A highly readable account of how solid research and personal testing of self-help techniques saved a couple's marriage after the birth of their child.

Pub Date: March 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-316-26710-6

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 18, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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