An impressive segregation tale—not comforting by a long shot but true to its era and an intriguing experiment in textual...

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A debut historical novel focuses on racial tensions in the South in 1950.

In this tale, the Horaces, a mixed-race couple, have moved from Chicago to fictional Kidron, North Carolina, because Titus’ Aunt Callula has bequeathed him the 90-acre ancestral homestead, begging him to settle there and keep it in the family. Fifteen-year-old Asa is the couple’s bright and perceptive daughter. The story is told through her eyes, eyes that are being opened to the rigid Jim Crow rules. Titus is a well-educated Black man, former lawyer, and successful writer; Ardene is White and Jewish. To complicate things further, Asa could easily pass for White. Essentially this is a story about social cruelty. The Ku Klux Klan is everywhere; stores and even hospitals are segregated; and with few exceptions, the hoi polloi are viciously and openly racist. Blacks bear the brunt of this, but Jews and other outsiders are barely tolerated. Threats are as pervasive as the weather and as subtle as thunder. The Black community, used to this climate, tries to make the best of it. But Ardene is a natural fighter, determined to start to make things right. Asa becomes deeply involved in a big project to renovate a house into a library for Blacks and eventually helps people “check out the books they want” at the new library. But the idea of Blacks reading is beyond anathema in Kidron, and a heavy price will likely be paid.

Mangel’s dark novel is a very ambitious undertaking and strong in many ways. The typography—left margin justified, right not, as well as artfully broken lines—signals loose blank verse. For most of the book’s 600-plus pages, the verse simply moves the plot along. But when the subject invites it, readers can hear the poetry, rather like a radio signal that fades in and out. For example: “Miss Junetene brings out an oval pie basket, sets / it on the table. ‘Asa, I have some lemon biscuit / for you mama and made them fig biscuit for you pa’ /… /… / The basket has a crisp ruffled trim of forest green / gingham. ‘That’s a pretty pie basket,’ I say.” Although poetry tends to draw readers’ attention to the words themselves and prose to the ideas those words serve, a work like this shows that the gap is not that wide. (Truly lyric poetry might be another matter.) The author delights in descriptions of all kinds, especially food, and delivers some memorable characters, like Virgil Hudson, Callula’s caretaker, immensely strong and kind; Sheriff Noah Emerson, the worst the South has to offer; Henryk, a brilliant Jewish hermit; and Miss Bertie, Asa’s teacher. Asa makes a perfect narrator and protagonist. She devours books that are well beyond her age—including, secretly, her father’s racy mysteries, written under the pen name Ovid White. And she is a useful mix of wisdom and innocence. Asa deals with the tension between sticking it out in Kidron (Ardene’s idealistic stubbornness) and Titus’ growing desire for the relative safety of Chicago. Doing the right thing versus saving oneself is a very hard question, one that should engage every reader.

An impressive segregation tale—not comforting by a long shot but true to its era and an intriguing experiment in textual form.

Pub Date: June 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-912477-25-8

Page Count: 664

Publisher: Eyewear Publishing

Review Posted Online: Nov. 7, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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The years pass by at a fast and steamy clip in Blume’s latest adult novel (Wifey, not reviewed; Smart Women, 1984) as two friends find loyalties and affections tested as they grow into young women. In sixth grade, when Victoria Weaver is asked by new girl Caitlin Somers to spend the summer with her on Martha’s Vineyard, her life changes forever. Victoria, or more commonly Vix, lives in a small house; her brother has muscular dystrophy; her mother is unhappy, and money is scarce. Caitlin, on the other hand, lives part of the year with her wealthy mother Phoebe, who’s just moved to Albuquerque, and summers with her father Lamb, equally affluent, on the Vineyard. The story of how this casual invitation turns the two girls into what they call "Summer sisters" is prefaced with a prologue in which Vix is asked by Caitlin to be her matron of honor. The years in between are related in brief segments by numerous characters, but mostly by Vix. Caitlin, determined never to be ordinary, is always testing the limits, and in adolescence falls hard for Von, an older construction worker, while Vix falls for his friend Bru. Blume knows the way kids and teens speak, but her two female leads are less credible as they reach adulthood. After high school, Caitlin travels the world and can’t understand why Vix, by now at Harvard on a scholarship and determined to have a better life than her mother has had, won’t drop out and join her. Though the wedding briefly revives Vix’s old feelings for Bru, whom Caitlin is marrying, Vix is soon in love with Gus, another old summer friend, and a more compatible match. But Caitlin, whose own demons have been hinted at, will not be so lucky. The dark and light sides of friendship breathlessly explored in a novel best saved for summer beachside reading.

Pub Date: May 8, 1998

ISBN: 0-385-32405-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1998

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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. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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