An uneven but enlightening novel.

BITTERSWEET

Four sisters are McCullough’s avatars of women’s progress in Depression-era Australia.

In the fictional town of Corunda, New South Wales, two sets of twins are born to Anglican rector Thomas Latimer. Edda and Grace are the progeny of the reverend’s first wife, who dies in childbirth; Kitty and Heather, nicknamed Tufts, are born to Maude, his redoubtable second wife. Stunning Kitty is her mother's favorite, which poisons Maude's relationship with all four girls. Largely to escape Maude, the twins, upon reaching young womanhood, train as nurses at the local hospital. (Edda’s dream of medical school has been dashed, thanks to Maude.) This rambling, episodic tome follows the women into their 30s. Dreamy Grace, who’s obsessed with steam locomotives, marries fellow train enthusiast Bear. Edda begins a discreet affair with Jack, one of two heirs to the vast Burdum family fortune. Spinsterish Tufts has a similarly intense but platonic friendship with Liam, a pathologist. Charles Burdum, raised in England, returns to claim the lion’s share of his family's wealth. Determined to enter politics and marry Kitty (not necessarily in that order), he achieves both goals but can’t tame Kitty’s volatility or modulate her foul mouth. Edda surprises everyone by marrying Melbourne politico Sir Rawson—since he's gay, this is another deep but platonic friendship. The chief attractions here are the dissection of Australian society during the Great Depression and the detailed exposure of sex discrimination and feminist struggles, Australian style. This is clearly territory that McCullough knows well, but she doesn't manage to endow her story with much conflict or narrative drive.

An uneven but enlightening novel.

Pub Date: Aug. 19, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-5541-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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