Equal parts slow-burning thriller and intelligent analysis of the pros and cons of intentional communities, the novel will...

WE WENT TO THE WOODS

Five young people set up an idealistic living experiment in upstate New York in this tantalizingly mysterious second novel by the author of Dead Letters (2017).

Mack, the narrator, has good reason for heading off the grid with four attractive semistrangers. A former Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, she has been thrown out of her program after a scandal involving a reality TV show, and her middle-class parents are getting tired of her bumming around their house in Ithaca. So when she meets wealthy Louisa while helping to cater a party for a local land trust and Louisa introduces her to charming Beau, sweet Chloe, and enthusiastic Jack, Mack jumps on the chance to join them in setting up a homestead on an abandoned farm owned by Louisa's family. Despite the fact that it's winter, and regardless of the lack of winter plumbing, they eagerly move in to their respective cabins on the farm and start making plans for planting crops and raising chickens and regularly swapping beds. Their lives become complicated as they interact with the residents of the more organized and far more radical commune next door, led by the charismatic Matthew, who spends his time journeying among a network of collectives he has established. Mack—observant, curious, and apt to leap to unwarranted conclusions—makes a likable and understandably unreliable narrator. While the characters are not as well-differentiated as they might be, the setting, traced through a year of seasons, is richly realized, with believable details about the difficulties of farming with little resources and less knowledge. Dolan-Leach grounds the contemporary story in references to earlier American attempts to “go to the woods” by Thoreau and the many founders of intentional communities in the area in which this one is located, though her attempt to integrate passages from the diary of a fictional resident of one such community into the novel fizzles out.

Equal parts slow-burning thriller and intelligent analysis of the pros and cons of intentional communities, the novel will appeal to those who would rather read about such endeavors from a safe distance than be immersed in their messy reality.

Pub Date: July 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-58888-4

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2019

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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