Repetitious, slow-moving, endlessly sentimental.

A SONG I KNEW BY HEART

An elderly widow loses a son but gains a daughter as she returns to her roots and allows an old wound to heal.

Naomi, the widow, narrates. She is a child of the South, from a poor family in a coastal town near Charleston, South Carolina. In 1946, she marries her childhood sweetheart Eli; their old-world courtship has a simple dignity that eludes Lott (The Hunt Club, 1998, etc.) elsewhere. Both are devout Baptists, and the Christian ethic permeates Naomi’s life. The next year, the two move to Massachusetts, where Eli starts a plumbing business with his best friend, Lonny. Then the young marrieds get some really bad news: They won’t be able to have children. Uncharacteristically, Eli fails to comfort his wife, whereupon Naomi turns to Lonny and initiates joyless sex with him, a single lapse that will torment her throughout their 50-year marriage. Lonny confesses to Eli that same day, yet husband and wife, always deeply loving, never talk it through, a story aspect that’s barely credible. Eventually, the couple do make a baby. Their son Mahlon grows up to wed Ruth, both of them also devout Christians. Then, after 22 years of a childless marriage, Mahlon dies in a car accident. Naomi and Ruth, now both widows, form a bond so close that when Naomi decides to return to the South, abandoning the wonderful friends in her quilting bee, Ruth goes with her. “Where you go, I will go,” she declares biblically. Back home, Naomi rejoices in that special light filtered through the pines, but even more in the true light of loving kin—her stepbrother and wife and their children and grandchildren. All illustrate God’s “tender mercies,” his cornucopia of gifts and blessings that offset life’s tragedies. Naomi’s pain from her long-ago adultery dissolves in the familial warmth, yet the goodhearted rituals are not only painfully cloying but can’t mask the lack of a storyline.

Repetitious, slow-moving, endlessly sentimental.

Pub Date: April 20, 2004

ISBN: 0-375-50377-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2004

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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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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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