Though the tales are dated and at a glance have little import for the modern reader, Gilman’s sharp characters and her...

MAG-MARJORIE and WON OVER

            Two didactic, at times sentimental novels (first serialized in Gilman’s magazine, The Forerunner) still prove fascinating in their explications of gender in turn-of-the-century New England.

            A preeminent pioneer of contemporary feminism, tackling in her nonfiction the repressive economic and domestic life of women, Gilman (1860-1935) didn’t stray far at all in her fiction.  Written only a few years before the publication of her significant Herland, both Mag-Marjorie and Won Over (1912 and 1913) present women confronted with the challenge of independence in a world of petticoats and social calls.  Though the plot of the first is conventionally melodramatic, the solution to its “problem” is pure Gilman.  Mag, a 16-year-old maid at her aunt’s inn, falls for Dr. Armstrong, becomes pregnant, and is tossed aside by the misogynistic Lothario.  Luckily for Mag, the exceptional Mary Yale is visiting the inn and saves the girl:  “He’s not going to be ruined by this summer’s sins – why should you?”  The wealthy, unmarried older woman makes plans for Mag’s next ten years – a Henrietta Higgins transforming the country girl into an educated European surgeon.  Won Over is more contemporary in its relevance and far more compelling.  Stella Widfield, a happily married mother, discovers the emptiness of her life when her sons go off to boarding school.  In a nice turn of paranoia à la “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Stella becomes obsessed with her husband’s safety until she discovers a world outside the stifling environs of her Manhattan apartment.  Rediscovering her love of writing (thanks to another well-to-do lady and her broader circle of Socialist bohemians), Stella also discovers herself and in turn reignites her faltering marriage by changing from a frothing handmaid into an individual whom her husband can respect.

            Though the tales are dated and at a glance have little import for the modern reader, Gilman’s sharp characters and her insights into gender traps provide enough appeal to interest those outside academic circles.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-9655309-4-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1999

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The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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