A tense and absorbing family tale.

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LEAH'S GARDEN

A FAMILY DAMAGED BY TRAGEDY: HOW LOVE HEALS THEIR WOUNDS

A debut drama revolves around a theme of domestic abuse and the resolution of age-old grudges.

When readers first meet the Coxes, they are preparing for a homecoming of sorts. It seems like a happy occasion, and it is, for some. A son, Bradley, is returning home after eight years in prison for killing his father. Leah, Bradley’s mother, and Thelma, his aunt, are in the kitchen making food while his sisters, Vanessa and Mary Kay, are hanging a banner. The point of view switches between characters to set up the story. Vanessa remembers visiting Bradley, her best friend, in prison. Mary Kay wonders whether anyone thinks about their father, Brad Sr., and how he doted on her. Leah remembers the hell of the trial and the therapy that didn’t help. Bradley is about to be a free man for the first time in his adult life, and his homecoming means family members will have to deal with the feelings they have swallowed for eight years. Uncle Joey puts Bradley to work in construction. Vanessa and Bradley try to make up for lost time as siblings. Things are fragile but stable at first. Then Bradley starts drinking, which strains his relationship with his mother, especially because he’s living with her. He makes a bad decision that alienates Vanessa. Everyone remembers years of Brad Sr. physically and mentally abusing Leah and the kids while no one, not even Joey and Thelma, did anything about it. May’s characters and their relationships are well-drawn; this is a lucid tale dealing with serious issues that is worth reading. But it has some pervasive structural problems. Because everyone is living in the past, the novel feels like a long compilation of flashbacks. Characters are stranded in the present while the narrative looks back (“After Vanessa left, Bradley carried their empty coffee cups over and set them in the sink. Memories flooded him. Kitchen memories. His father coming home from work in one of his moods, throwing food, breaking dishes”). And there are no chapters, though the volume is split into four parts with an occasional line break. That doesn’t ruin the book, but it does dull the impact of an otherwise compelling story.

A tense and absorbing family tale.

Pub Date: June 29, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5465-9951-7

Page Count: 356

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2018

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A vivid sequel that strains credulity.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST

Fremont (After Long Silence, 1999) continues—and alters—her story of how memories of the Holocaust affected her family.

At the age of 44, the author learned that her father had disowned her, declaring her “predeceased”—or dead in his eyes—in his will. It was his final insult: Her parents had stopped speaking to her after she’d published After Long Silence, which exposed them as Jewish Holocaust survivors who had posed as Catholics in Europe and America in order to hide multilayered secrets. Here, Fremont delves further into her tortured family dynamics and shows how the rift developed. One thread centers on her life after her harrowing childhood: her education at Wellesley and Boston University, the loss of her virginity to a college boyfriend before accepting her lesbianism, her stint with the Peace Corps in Lesotho, and her decades of work as a lawyer in Boston. Another strand involves her fraught relationship with her sister, Lara, and how their difficulties relate to their father, a doctor embittered after years in the Siberian gulag; and their mother, deeply enmeshed with her own sister, Zosia, who had married an Italian count and stayed in Rome to raise a child. Fremont tells these stories with novelistic flair, ending with a surprising theory about why her parents hid their Judaism. Yet she often appears insensitive to the serious problems she says Lara once faced, including suicidal depression. “The whole point of suicide, I thought, was to succeed at it,” she writes. “My sister’s completion rate was pathetic.” Key facts also differ from those in her earlier work. After Long Silence says, for example, that the author grew up “in a small city in the Midwest” while she writes here that she grew up in “upstate New York,” changes Fremont says she made for “consistency” in the new book but that muddy its narrative waters. The discrepancies may not bother readers seeking psychological insights rather than factual accuracy, but others will wonder if this book should have been labeled a fictionalized autobiography rather than a memoir.

A vivid sequel that strains credulity.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982113-60-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A miscellany of paternal pride (and frustration) darkened by the author’s increasing realizations of his mortality.

DAD'S MAYBE BOOK

Ruminations and reminiscences of an author—now in his 70s—about fatherhood, writing, and death.

O’Brien (July, July, 2002, etc.), who achieved considerable literary fame with both Going After Cacciato (1978) and The Things They Carried (1990), returns with an eclectic assembly of pieces that grow increasingly valedictory as the idea of mortality creeps in. (The title comes from the author’s uncertainty about his ability to assemble these pieces in a single volume.) He begins and ends with a letter: The initial one is to his first son (from 2003); the terminal one, to his two sons, both of whom are now teens (the present). Throughout the book, there are a number of recurring sections: “Home School” (lessons for his sons to accomplish), “The Magic Show” (about his long interest in magic), and “Pride” (about his feelings for his sons’ accomplishments). O’Brien also writes often about his own father. One literary figure emerges as almost a member of the family: Ernest Hemingway. The author loves Hemingway’s work (except when he doesn’t) and often gives his sons some of Papa’s most celebrated stories to read and think and write about. Near the end is a kind of stand-alone essay about Hemingway’s writings about war and death, which O’Brien realizes is Hemingway’s real subject. Other celebrated literary figures pop up in the text, including Elizabeth Bishop, Andrew Marvell, George Orwell, and Flannery O’Connor. Although O’Brien’s strong anti-war feelings are prominent throughout, his principal interest is fatherhood—specifically, at becoming a father later in his life and realizing that he will miss so much of his sons’ lives. He includes touching and amusing stories about his toddler sons, about the sadness he felt when his older son became a teen and began to distance himself, and about his anguish when his sons failed at something.

A miscellany of paternal pride (and frustration) darkened by the author’s increasing realizations of his mortality.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-618-03970-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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