SAVING ST. GERM

A Los Angeles scientist hits upon a TOE (``Theory of Everything'') at the very moment her family needs her most—in a witty and sophisticated 90's-style drama by the poet and author of Dear Digby (1989). Eccentric, independent Esme Charbonneau has experienced the pleasures of intellectual success as a gifted child, a Harvard undergraduate, and the protÇgÇ of renowned chemist Kendall Quandahl. But since she's moved to L.A. to teach organic chemistry and splice genes at the male-dominated University of Greater California, Esme's satisfactions have steadily lessened. Having adjusted to the California culture, married a TV technical director who moonlights unsuccessfully as a stand-up comedian, and given birth to a daughter whose odd, metaphoric use of language causes doctors to suspect mental illness, Esme finds herself struggling in vain against what looks like mediocrity in her career, in her marriage, and as a mother. On top of this, Esme's abstract mind, which tends to dwell on such things as the chemical composition of lipstick when she's supposed to be interacting with another human being, has been distracted lately by hints of a connection uniting the concept of molecular ``handedness'' with the Big Bang—a sort of universal theory that she believes could make her famous. But the timing is all wrong: Esme's intellectual snobbery has caused a frat-like student to scheme against her; her insensitivity has caused her husband to move out; and her physical absence has left her beloved daughter prey to those who want to help but cannot understand her. As Esme reaches a climax in her theorizing, her personal life reaches a climax of disaster and life becomes a frantic juggling act—before she pins down her theory and discovers the tragic ways in which her daughter's strange behavior and her own forgotten past are intertwined. A sparkling, invigorating story, though the author's obvious preference for brilliant Esme over her doltish colleagues and stammering husband detracts from its effect.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-670-84047-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1992

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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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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