Madden’s low-key approach to celebrity is one more part of this novel’s singular charm.

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MOLLY FOX’S BIRTHDAY

Family, friendship, self-knowledge, the theater—a successful playwright ruminates on all this and more in a haunting novel, finalist for the Orange Prize, from the Irish Madden (Authenticity, 2005, etc.).

The unnamed 39-year-old narrator is in Dublin, housesitting for her best female friend Molly Fox, who’s on vacation. Molly is considered the finest classical stage actor of her generation, and it is she, along with the dramatist herself and her best male friend Andrew, who form the core of her reflections on this June day. There is nothing static or inert about these reflections; on the contrary, Madden moves with ease between potent memories and the day’s events (they include four surprise encounters) to create a pulsing, throbbing story. It was the dramatist’s first play that launched Molly’s and her careers; the women have been close ever since, though their backgrounds are quite different. While the dramatist comes from a large, loving Catholic family in the North, Molly was abandoned by her mother on her seventh birthday and invests enormous energy in caring for her deeply depressed brother Fergus. Andrew, too, a friend from college days, had a hard childhood, a grim Belfast home with a brother, since murdered, who was a Protestant paramilitary; but, like the women, he has flourished, becoming an art historian famous for his TV appearances. The day is strung together with a series of small epiphanies: Molly, compassion itself, nonetheless has a predatory streak; Andrew has attained a “moral knowledge,” as has Fergus. And what of the playwright, who has twice shied away from marriage? Is she as resistant to intimacy as Molly is? This is left unresolved, and that’s a disappointment. Though two late revelations of unrequited love suggest a Chekhovian moment, it’s the erstwhile Dubliner Oscar Wilde who’s the novel’s presiding spirit, fittingly enough for a story rich in insights into acting, playwriting and the transformative power of theater.

Madden’s low-key approach to celebrity is one more part of this novel’s singular charm.

Pub Date: May 3, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-312-42954-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2010

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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