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MANSFIELD

Relies too much on its characters’ famous names to hold the reader’s attention.

Stead (Talking About O’Dwyer, 2000, etc.) takes a fellow New Zealander, short-story master Katherine Mansfield, as the protagonist of his listless tenth novel.

Not that the three years of Mansfield’s life covered here aren’t eventful: her beloved brother, Leslie Beauchamp, dies while giving grenade instruction to fellow soldiers in France; she spends a few days in the war zone making love with a French officer during one of the many low points in her ambivalent relationship with English literary man John (Jack) Middleton Murry; and the story closes in 1918 with her realization that she has TB, which the epilogue reminds us killed her five years later. But the focus is relentlessly inward; each chapter takes us inside the thoughts of a separate individual—Mansfield, Beauchamp, Murry, their friend Fred Goodyear (who also dies in the war), Frieda Lawrence, Dora Carrington—each one musing about their conflicted feelings in a way not nearly as interesting as the pioneering fiction of Mansfield herself or of Frieda’s husband. D.H. Lawrence is depicted at work during this period on Women in Love, based in part on his and Frieda’s charged friendship with Mansfield and Murry, but none of that novel’s stormy passion seeps into these pages. It’s all rather bloodless, right down to the parade of literary friends who make desultory appearances. T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley and Lytton Strachey are no more than sketches drawn from the ample shelf of books on this overstudied crowd; even “Bertie” Russell’s mildly amorous pursuit of Mansfield is . . . mild. Stead does manage a few sharp passages on Mansfield’s work, as she thinks over the urgings of Goodyear and D.H. Lawrence to move beyond being “too smart at the expense of common mortals” and concludes, “better honest about what I see around me . . . than a gypsy violinist playing oh so feelingly off the note.” That’s not enough of a revelation to redeem an excessively low-key narrative.

Relies too much on its characters’ famous names to hold the reader’s attention.

Pub Date: June 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-09-946865-4

Page Count: 245

Publisher: Vintage UK/Trafalgar

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2005

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A LITTLE LIFE

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

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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. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

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. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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