As smart as they are affecting, these stories aren’t novels: it’s in their brevity that they loom so large.




Forgive Messud (The Last Life, 1999, etc.) for subtitling this set of novellas “two short novels,” and reject the impulse to make sense of the juxtaposition of two beautiful tales of people contending with solitude: each story succeeds in standing alone.

Maria, protagonist of “A Simple Tale,” discovers blood-streaked walls at the home of Mrs. Ellington, a woman she’s cared for every Tuesday for 46 years. Maria expects the gruesome, but the old woman’s real plight triggers in Maria a flashing-before-her-eyes recollection of her own whole life, starting as a girl in pre-WWII Ukraine, moving to camps in Germany when the war arrives, and eventually raising an American-style family and growing old in Canada. Maria is a homebody akin to Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge—she takes guilty pleasure in a teacup left dirty overnight—and her story spills out, sadly and expertly, in one long breath of history and well-earned nostalgia, and Maria discovers that having a story is as important as telling one. “The Hunters” plays a coy game by withholding the gender of a lovelorn American academic studying death in a disappointing London apartment for a summer. Messud recalls Henry James by sometimes opting for the pretty word over the perfect word (and she loves parentheses), and the story’s plot and subject echo those of The Aspern Papers. Sexless and nameless, the character is as difficult to reference as to pin down: the main action occurs when a downstairs neighbor, a gnomish woman named Ridley Wandor, who just happens to care for the terminally ill, repeatedly imposes unwanted friendship on the scholar, who in turn becomes obsessed with finding something evil behind her veil of friendliness. But beyond the screen is only a misplaced distrust and another lesson on how to be human and alone.

As smart as they are affecting, these stories aren’t novels: it’s in their brevity that they loom so large.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-15-100588-5

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2001

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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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