STONE ARABIA

A woman tussles with memories of her brother, a rock ’n’ roll cult hero, in a sharp, challenging novel about identity and family history.

Spiotta (Eat the Document, 2006, etc.) claims Don DeLillo as one of her mentors, and her third novel bears a resemblance to DeLillo’s classic Great Jones Street (1973). Both novels are concerned with the invention of pop-culture personas, and Spiotta shares DeLillo’s plainspoken, often clinical style of observation. It’s best not to draw too close a connection between the two authors, though: Spiotta’s blend of human portraits and big-picture thinking is wholly her own. Denise, the novel’s heroine and occasional narrator, has had a long love-hate relationship with her brother, Nik, an L.A. rock musician who flirted with mass popularity in the 1970s but more often shunned the spotlight. Using various pseudonyms and working in various styles, he produced a host of self-released albums and kept a regular set of “Chronicles” about himself filled with invented news stories and reviews. Spiotta’s theme of crafted personas is clear (Nik’s most popular band was called the Fakes), but Denise’s wry, mordant character moves the novel beyond a philosophical exercise. The siblings’ mother increasingly succumbs to dementia, which adds human detail to Denise’s musings about what connects us outside of shared memory. She has strong reactions to news of far-away events (the book’s title comes from the name of a tragedy-struck New York Amish community), which gives an emotional pitch to her thoughts about mediated experience. But for all its hard thinking, this book has plenty of novelistic energy: It’s filled with in-jokes about pop, punk and new wave music, and Denise’s character engagingly echoes the music’s tone of irony and defiance. A fine novel about heartbreak. Spiotta keenly understands how busily we construct images of ourselves for the public, and how hard loved ones work to dismantle them.

 

Pub Date: July 12, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4516-1796-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2011

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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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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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