A poignant tale of recrimination and forgiveness.

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THE PERFECTION OF VALOR

A man on the cusp of marriage to a woman of a mixed racial background struggles with his father’s bigotry and history in this novel. 

Cary Hinton meets Cornelia Barber at Centenary College, where he teaches English literature, and eight months later they’re about to be married. On the day of their wedding, Cornelia is set to finally meet her new parents-in-law, but Cary anxiously frets about his father’s reaction to his fiancee’s mixed background: She’s a blend of Portuguese, Irish, Vietnamese, and African-American, and Cary’s father, Fletcher, is an unrepentant racist. Fletcher was once a highly decorated colonel in the Marines, but now he languishes in diminished form in a nursing home, addled with dementia but imperiously intimidating as ever. The meeting between Cornelia and Fletcher is predictably disastrous—he is monstrously insulting, an experience that dredges up both Cary’s old resentments and long-harbored guilt. Fletcher was a merciless martinet as a father and subjected Cary to withering discipline and criticism. Fletcher beat him badly once his abuse was discovered, an episode that forced the colonel into ignominious retirement. Cary joined the military as well—he was also a Marine and served in Beirut with distinction—but left with conflicted emotions, much to his father’s angrily expressed disappointment. Meanwhile, Fletcher is at the center of a controversy in the nursing home—he’s accused of striking his wife, Betsy, now frail in the wake of a stroke. Mustin (The One, 2018, etc.) paints a nuanced picture of racism that’s rich with layers—Fletcher served in Vietnam, only exacerbating the conflict with Cornelia, and Betsy actually has an Indian heritage. The author’s writing can be elegant, even poetic, and artfully captures the tenderness beneath Fletcher’s cantankerous surface: “He felt her hand on his forehead. Then he breathed deeply and found what he’d been seeking, the abyss of darkness beyond dreaming.” The novel’s ending may seem too neatly packaged for some, a trite conclusion incongruent with the complexity that precedes it. Otherwise, this is an intelligent story, carefully crafted.

A poignant tale of recrimination and forgiveness.

Pub Date: March 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-64255-688-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Gridley Fires Books

Review Posted Online: May 10, 2018

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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