An honorable failure from a gifted author who will undoubtedly do better.



More intelligent, atmospheric historical fiction from Australian novelist Balint, though her imagined biography of the Irish actress who inspired Hector Berlioz lacks the visceral punch of The Salt Letters (2001).

We know from an opening letter addressed to her son that Harriet Smithson eventually married Berlioz, but we don’t actually meet him until quite late in Balint’s oddly structured narrative. Harriet’s story begins with her birth in Ireland in 1800. Her parents, both traveling actors, leave her in the care of saintly Father Barrett; she grows up in comfort with the advantages of education denied a younger brother and sister born and kept on the road. When she is 14, her parents reclaim her for the theater, launching Harriet on a modest, monotonous career playing “countless maidens” at London's Drury Lane. Only in 1827, when she accepts an offer from Covent Garden manager Charles Kemble to appear with him in Paris, does she make a sensation as Ophelia, Juliet, and other Shakespearean heroines. The French adore her and Berlioz writes Symphonie Fantastique in her honor, though we know from her letters to their son that the marriage does not turn out well. There’s no evident artistic reason why the author chooses to alternate among these letters, third-person chapters, Harriet’s own account of her life, and purported first-person monologues by Desdemona, Anne Boleyn and Harriet’s other famous roles; nor is the novel’s intent made clearer by a disjointed chronology that frequently flashes back to her girlhood in Ireland or gives us her 1832 meeting with Berlioz before her 1827 triumph as Ophelia. Harriet is an appealing character, stoically bearing burdensome family responsibilities and the unwanted attentions of men who think all actresses are loose women, and her descriptions of her craft offer a nice summary of 19th-century acting technique. But the parts just don’t cohere into a satisfactory whole; the story’s further muffled by languid pacing and a limited emotional range running from sadness to regret.

An honorable failure from a gifted author who will undoubtedly do better.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-393-05925-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 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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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 modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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