Steinke brings the world of Bent Tree to vivid life with a cast of secondary characters more sharply drawn than Jesse and...


Steinke (Milk, 2005, etc.) ponders the nature of religious faith in this coming-of-age story about a defrocked New-Age minister’s daughter’s adjusting to her family’s new life in suburban Virginia in the early 1970s.

In 1972, 12-year-old Jesse moves with her parents and 4-year-old brother, Philip, from Philadelphia, where her father has once again been fired for his unconventional methods and beliefs as a Methodist minister, to Roanoke, Virginia, where he has found work as a counselor. While he is an intellectual idealist unable or unwilling to function in the practical world, Jesse’s deeply frustrated, emotionally erratic mother craves respectability and material comfort. Their marriage seems unhappy to Jesse, but their basic decency shows in bits and pieces throughout the novel. Having settled into Bent Tree, an apartment complex where the motley mix of residents struggles to pay the rent, innocent yet precocious Jesse begins seventh grade desperate to fit in but also afraid of her body’s pubescent changes. After popular Sheila rebuffs her, Jesse becomes soul mates with Jill, who believes her family has been cursed. Unfortunately true to Jill’s beliefs, her alcoholic mother disappears, leaving Jill and her younger siblings to fend for themselves until someone (maybe Jesse’s mom) calls in social services and Jill exits from Jesse’s life. Three years later, Sheila, whose popularity has faded since a scandal surrounding her dad’s sexuality, draws Jesse into her fantasy life involving Playboy Bunnies and her own incipient sadomasochism. Jesse also begins a relationship with potentially dangerous but pathetic bad-boy Dwayne. But by 10th grade, Jesse has turned into the accelerated student with smart friends she was always meant to be. Then Jill, now a devout born-again Christian, reappears to confuse and challenge the beliefs (or lack thereof) that Jesse’s been struggling with all along.

Steinke brings the world of Bent Tree to vivid life with a cast of secondary characters more sharply drawn than Jesse and particularly her parents, who are never quite fully realized on the page.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-935639-94-7

Page Count: 300

Publisher: Tin House

Review Posted Online: Aug. 14, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

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

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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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The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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