PARADISE FARM

Second-novelist Webster (Sins of the Mothers, 1993) paints an appealing, if not wholly compelling, portrait of the sexual mores, intellectual habits, and bohemian aspirations of an upper-class Jewish family in 1929 New York. With the death of patriarch Eugene, Agnes and her grown children Lara and Johnnie lease the big house to David and his pregnant wife Muriel, two early converts to psychoanalysis who hope to turn the house and expansive grounds into a mental health center for disturbed children. While David and Muriel first focus their efforts on Robin, a young girl hesitating on the brink of autism, their attention gravitates also to Agnes” troubled family, now quartered in the big house’s adjacent cottage. Agnes has begun a slightly sadomasochistic affair with the much younger Walter, a German baron with eyes for American wealth, while Lara, a struggling painter, holds a modern woman’s views and conducts a random love life to prove it, though a childhood affair with her brother has tainted her perception of everything. Then there’s Johnnie, a brilliant engineer who escapes from the world by designing and flying kites on the farm—and who’s deemed crazy because of his obsession with the political instability of Germany. Though his distress at the world’s growing anti-Semitism is well founded, his self-obsessed mother and flapper sister think that his recitations of Mein Kampf do little more than suggest his inability to get along with all concerned. Amid the family’s turbulence, Webster evokes the times these characters live in—the lure of Harlem nightclubs and Florida land speculation, the excitement of the new “talking cure,” and the burgeoning influence of cubism. The story hardly lacks for drama, but an odd emotional restraint seems even so to cauterize the characters in midstep. Engaging, though a certain essential vivacity is missing.

Pub Date: March 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-7914-4099-0

Page Count: 250

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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