The finely drawn scenes and characters here will suck in all but the hardest-hearted. Pretty much irresistible.

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BEFORE YOU KNOW KINDNESS

The privileged summer of a prosperous family is shortened by a bullet in the night.

Courteously observing dramatic unities, Oprah-blessed Bohjalian (Midwives, 1997; The Buffalo Soldier, 2002, etc.), America’s answer to Joanna Trollope, sees to it that the jammed rifle in the back of Vermont lawyer John Seton’s borrowed Volvo goes off to critical effect when it’s fired by 12-year-old-going-on-16 Charlotte McCollough into her father’s right shoulder. The great irony in this suavely perceptive story is that novice hunter Seton’s bullet had been intended for a deer, a deep dark secret hitherto kept from the brutally winged Spencer McCollough, Seton’s brother-in-law and the public face of FERAL, an animal activist organization. Spencer has been vegan since repenting of the murder of countless lobsters as a kitchen laborer during his college years, and his dedication to the well being of animals is deep and long-standing. That dedication, Bohjalian politely points out, has not always extended to the animals in his own herd—wife Catherine, a meat-sneaking Brearley instructor, and daughter Charlotte. In fact, his vegetarian rigidities and professional absences have so distressed Catherine that she was ready to discuss separation just before the pot- and beer-befuddled Charlotte fired the rifle at what she thought might be the deer that had ruined that summer’s ambitious vegetable garden. Nan Seton, Catherine and John’s immensely energetic, capable, and prosperous mother, manages the immediate effects of the crisis, which occurred at her New Hampshire cottage, but she is helpless to patch the rift that develops between the families of her two children when Spencer refuses to forgive his deeply repentant brother-in-law and allows FERAL to push for publicity and a lawsuit. The balance of power rests with Charlotte’s younger cousin Willow, a real sweetheart who’d shared that spliff with Charlotte hours before the disaster.

The finely drawn scenes and characters here will suck in all but the hardest-hearted. Pretty much irresistible.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-4000-4745-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Shaye Areheart/Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2004

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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 love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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