A beautiful piece of writing: bittersweet with nostalgia, surprisingly sensual and sharply nuanced in its depiction of the...

THE LAST FIRST DAY

The wife of a private school headmaster looks back at 50-plus years of marriage in this restrained yet emotionally powerful portrait of enduring love from Brown (The Rope Walk, 2007, etc.).

Ruth’s husband, Peter, now in his 70s, has dedicated his life, and hers, to Derry School, a Maine prep school for boys. As the novel opens, Ruth reflects on her life while preparing for the cocktail party she and Peter throw annually on the first evening of the new school year. After receiving his Ph.D. at Yale, Peter rejected seemingly more prestigious job offers because he appreciated Derry’s stated mission of teaching indigent boys. Fifty years later, the school has begun marketing to wealthier families to survive, but Peter remains a gentle idealist. Ruth finds Peter’s genuine goodness, his belief in God and his genial passivity both enviable and irksome since she remains filled with doubt and inner conflict. Raised by a single father who died in prison shortly after he was exposed as a murderer, Ruth has never found life easy, but she has experienced kindness and generosity, first from Peter’s doctor father, who took Ruth in after her own father’s arrest, and then from the Yale psychiatry professor and Holocaust survivor who became her closest friend and surrogate mother. Born into middle-class security, Peter has never lost his sense of optimism, not even after his mother’s mental illness and the crisis in his romance with Ruth that separated the two young lovers for several years until they reunited as college seniors. They have never been apart since. On the evening of the party, Peter has a stroke. He survives but must retire. That Peter has been beloved by his students has always been obvious, but Ruth finally realizes that her life at the school and with Peter has been richer than she realized.

A beautiful piece of writing: bittersweet with nostalgia, surprisingly sensual and sharply nuanced in its depiction of the strains and rewards that shape any long marriage.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-90804-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

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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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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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