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THE CIRCUS IN WINTER

Funny and tough-minded, yet tender and touched with magic: this is a real find.

Day’s wise, warmhearted debut reveals the private lives and secret yearnings of clowns, acrobats, and pinheads as they interact with the locals in a circus’s midwestern off-season home.

Herself the descendant of a ticket-taker and an elephant trainer, the author integrates family history with documentary research to create a multifaceted portrait of Lima, Indiana (stand-in for her hometown, Peru). It could be any American town filled with men stuck in dead-end jobs and women looking for more from life than another baby—except for the galvanizing annual stays of the circus folk. Immigrants, misfits, dwarves, and former slaves reinvented as African royalty, they incarnate the intoxicating possibilities of freedom and pleasure beyond the edge of town, even though their lives are scarred by loss, disappointment, and tragedy. As the narrative moves forward across the 20th century in a series of stories about interconnected characters, the Great Porter Circus shuts down, its performers and roustabouts retire, and their children become dry cleaners, railroad clerks, and bank tellers. Traces of glitter and sawdust in the air add a ghostly poignancy to the later tales of small-town restlessness. “The King and His Court,” a brilliant, bitter chronicle of Laura Hofstadter, whose dreams are stymied by an unwanted pregnancy, launches the second half, in which all the thematic strands come together. “There are basically two kinds of people in the world,” Laura tells her daughter Jenny before vanishing. “The kind who stay are town people, and the kind who leave are circus people.” Jenny becomes a modern-day circus person, an academic who moves from place to place and job to job. But when she returns for the funeral of Grandpa Ollie, a former clown, Jenny realizes, “the world is full of hometowns . . . . And just because it was hard to leave Linden Avenue in Flatbush or the Naperville city limits or Lima doesn’t mean you can’t ever go back.” The book closes on that moving note of reconciliation and understanding.

Funny and tough-minded, yet tender and touched with magic: this is a real find.

Pub Date: July 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-15-101048-X

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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