A delightful story filled with pleasant people in a lovely setting, though it could have been told in half as many pages.

Second Thoughts: Second Chances

A meandering family saga set in small-town New York, by former creative writing instructor Moses (Train from Thompsonville, 2006).

LA-born and -bred Paul Kipnis, an art history instructor, is lured to upstate New York’s Ely College by his father’s first cousin Viktor, whom Paul had met at his mother’s memorial service. Shortly thereafter, Paul’s dramatic sister, Rachel, summons him to their father’s LA home because their father, Mitchell, suffers what appears to be a heart ailment. Paul—accompanied by Viktor, an old friend of his father’s—visits Mitchell, and the three decide on an extended stay with Viktor and his adopted daughter, Corinna, in Thompsonville, New York. Mitchell moves in, and the arrangement works remarkably well. The only conflict occurs when Mitchell suspects—accurately—that Paul has developed an attraction to Corinna, who’s engaged to the scion of a wealthy New York City Jewish family for whom an immigrant goy from a small town is just not acceptable. Paul deals with his feelings by avoiding Corinna, whose engagement to Syd Steinberg drifts on interminably, despite their estrangement and infrequent visits. Syd abandons his graduate studies and, after his brother is killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, enters the world of New York finance, a move that spells the end of his relationship with Corinna. Unfortunately, the time line becomes muddled midway through the story, with the narrative jumping from one year to another (backward and forward) for no good reason. Likewise, a solid edit is needed to clear up some narrative inconsistencies. Nevertheless, with an adeptly drawn portrayal of Thompsonville, Moses offers likable characters in an enjoyable story despite the shortage of action and plot. 

A delightful story filled with pleasant people in a lovely setting, though it could have been told in half as many pages.

Pub Date: March 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5035-3471-1

Page Count: 398

Publisher: Xlibris

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2015

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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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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

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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