RIVER, CROSS MY HEART

An anemic first novel so well-intentioned that it’s almost painful to point out its myriad deficiencies. In the mid-1920s, Willie Bynum and his wife Alice have moved from North Carolina to Georgetown, D.C., in hopes of a better life for themselves and their daughters, Johnnie Mae and Clara. They warn the girls never to swim in the Potomac River, but ten-year-old Johnnie Mae goes there anyway with a group of friends, and five-year-old Clara accidentally drowns. The novel’s focus is blurred; Clarke can—t seem to decide if the story is about the aftermath of a drowning, Johnnie Mae’s coming of age, or the struggles of an African-American family new to the ways of the city. Unmemorable, underdeveloped characters come and go: a white woman who employs Alice; neighbors and relatives; an almost-mute girl Johnnie Mae befriends. Far too mature for a girl of ten, Johnnie Mae discovers swimming and suffers racial prejudice when she enters a competition. To demonstrate her independent mind, she and a friend sneak into a segregated pool to swim in the dead of night. None of these random events ever come together, though, and the significance of the birth of a baby boy to replace the dead Clara is never explored. Meanwhile, several chapters are little more than filler; late in the story, a beautician and her doctor admirer take up several pages, then fade away. We—re told that Johnnie Mae’s true father is a North Carolina Indian named Sam Logan, but this fact proves to be a red herring and is never utilized. Action is sparse, and the author lacks the linguistic facility necessary for a novel of ideas—not that there are many new ones here. Clarke’s one strength is her use of seemingly authentic period details. Otherwise, an only fair-to-middling effort.

Pub Date: July 7, 1999

ISBN: 0-316-14423-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1999

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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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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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