A stylishly structured and poetically described family tale hampered by an improbable key moment.

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BABY GRAND

An Italian American showgirl gives up her daughter for love in this novel.

The story opens with the aging Lina “Lila” Granatelli looking over old photographs in the living room of her elegant Palm Beach, Florida, home. A former stage performer, Lila examines a wartime photo that was given to servicemen who attended her shows. Meanwhile, a piano tuner works on her white baby grand—a wedding present given to Lila by her husband—which she has not played in the 15 years since he died. The tale flips back to the late 1930s with Lila, who has adopted the stage name Lila Grand, beginning her career in the chorus of a Broadway musical. Lila finds herself pregnant by Joe Prince, a fellow cast member who, pursuing his career, leaves her to raise her child alone. Two months after giving birth to Gloria, Lila is back on Broadway and becomes something of a minor celebrity. She meets and falls in love with Willie Burke, a wealthy New Yorker whose family owns a construction business. The Burke family is appalled by the fact the Willie intends to marry a single mother. Lila is told by Willie that Gloria won’t be living with them. Lila reluctantly gives her child to her brother and sister-in-law to raise as their own in St. Louis. But a harrowing legal battle and emotional turmoil ensue when Willie discovers that he is infertile and asks Lila to take the now-8-year-old Gloria back as their own. Bachner (Last Clear Chance, 2015) is capable of writing deeply moving passages, including describing a mother’s love for her young daughter. Early in the story, Lila and her baby daughter share this tender moment on the street: “Lila started the kissing game, quickly kissing Gloria in one corner of her face and then another while Gloria tried to catch her with her hands. This time Gloria was successful, and the chubby fingers grasped Lila’s nose for a moment. They both laughed.” Such episodes make Lila’s decision concerning her daughter—agreeing to give up Gloria so readily—deeply implausible. At first, Lila balks at the suggestion, reacting violently, but she’s later persuaded. Besides Lila’s precocious love for Willie and some sketchy advice from a priest referencing Moses, the author does not provide a sufficiently persuasive set of motives for this abrupt reversal. Bachner’s previous novel was criticized for its prolixity—his second offering has a better pace, and his observations are crisper and more condensed. Describing Lila in old age, he writes: “This is her final stage: an elegant, flightless butterfly, subsisting without nourishment or effort as her one day’s sun completes its circuit.” Yet the tale hinges on a scene that the author struggles to make believable—and this proves to be a major flaw. This is an elegantly written book weakened by a storyline most readers will question.

A stylishly structured and poetically described family tale hampered by an improbable key moment.

Pub Date: July 11, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-68433-302-8

Page Count: 253

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Review Posted Online: June 7, 2019

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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