An overlong but often enjoyable historical tale about surviving hardship.

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THE MEMORY OF TIME

A young Jewish woman in New York City takes a life-changing job in this epistolary novel from Lawler (The Saints of Lost Things, 2014).

Ambitious 22-year-old Miriam Levenson is the Barnard College School of Journalism’s top graduate, but jobs for female reporters are scarce during the Great Depression. Miriam’s family, once prosperous brownstone residents, now occupy a squalid apartment and pawn their belongings to make rent. She eventually takes a position with the Federal Writers’ Project, a program that, among other things, pays writers to record oral histories. She moves to Shreveport, Louisiana, for her first assignment, shortly after reluctantly accepting a marriage proposal from Irving, a young businessman who could save her family from poverty. One Shreveport resident quickly seizes her interest: 94-year-old Bridget Fenerty. The book then alternates between Miriam’s diary entries and transcripts of her interview with the elderly woman. Like many Irish families fleeing famine, Bridget’s immigrated to New Orleans in the mid-1800s. Her father didn’t survive the voyage, and later, after her mother’s death, she was forced to take a full-time maid position at the age of 11. Bridget then kept house for families before, during, and after the Civil War. She lost loved ones to that conflict, as well as to accidents, illness, and addiction. In one heartbreaking sequence, her fleeing Confederate employers kidnap her young son and take him to Brazil. She befriends Solomon Rusk, a freed slave who helps in her pursuit of her child. As Miriam listens to Bridget’s story, she reckons with her own impending marriage as well as her growing attraction to Ellie, a local artist. Lawler’s historical research yields vivid, lived-in settings and characters, and he viscerally transmits what it really meant to be a young Irish maid in antebellum New Orleans. He also shows how Bridget’s life was punctuated by instances of grace and connection, as well as by moments of tragedy. Some chapters suffer from overwriting, however; Miriam’s diary entries seem true to life, effectively depicting the thoughts of a learning young writer, but they move the plot along very slowly, due to an abundance of description and introspection. Bridget’s interview is far more engaging and vivid as it depicts a tragedy-marred life led with persistent energy and optimism, although the story’s tension slacks during the book’s final third.

An overlong but often enjoyable historical tale about surviving hardship.

Pub Date: May 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5306-0781-5

Page Count: 444

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2018

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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