STRONG FOR POTATOES

A first novel celebrates diversity and strong women with a plot that does a lot of heavy lifting to get the story off the ground. The author, a Maine resident, effectively evokes the novel's setting, the eastern coast of the state near Mount Desert Island, but her characters seem straight out of Central Casting. There's Blue, the narrator, part Passamaquoddy Indian and physically disabled; her photographer and designer father, also part Native American; her wonderfully wise grandfather, who lives on the reservation and teaches Blue the old ways; her warm African- American college roommate Daphne; Mrs. Francis, maker of traditional baskets; and lesbian Leonora, who translates books and raises goats. Each chapter of Blue's story is prefaced with a caption from one of the photographs her father obsessively continued taking from the day she was born. Blue had a twin sister Berry, who died shortly after birth, and for years the lonely Blue talks to an imaginary Berry, whom she thinks looks just like her. Meanwhile, her parents aren't much help: Her mother has never recovered from losing Berry, and her father, who plays down his Indian roots, feels guilty about the freak accident in which Blue lost an eye and the full use of one leg. Her only friend is her classmate Brian, a math geek. Blue learns to make baskets when she spends a summer with Grandpa after her parents separate. Then she's accepted into college, but an unlikely plot twist has her getting pregnant on prom night. She decides to have the baby, leaves school, and moves in with Grandpa, but doesn't experience true passion until she meets Leonora. That relationship both empowers Blue (she discovers that she has a true gift for basketmaking) and allows her to deal with a fresh succession of family tragedies. In all, an agenda-driven tale of concepts rather than characters, who, here, follow a script more than they do their heads and hearts.

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 1998

ISBN: 0-312-18187-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1997

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

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A LITTLE LIFE

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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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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