The Given Day isn’t flawless. Parts of the plot and some of the dialogue veer toward soap opera, and many of the characters...

THE GIVEN DAY

No baseball player has ever enjoyed a paradigm-shifting career like Babe Ruth’s. He began as a very good pitcher who could hit better than most. Then he recast himself, dominating the game as a slugger, hitting homers at a previously unimaginable clip, setting records that would stand for decades. Ruth opens, closes and makes occasional appearances throughout The Given Day, a historical epic that is easily the most ambitious work of Dennis Lehane’s career. Though the Boston novelist isn’t equating his achievement with Ruth’s, there are some striking parallels between the two.

Lehane launched his career with a series of detective novels that showed he could write better than most. Then he recast himself by leaving the detective format, making his popular breakthrough with the powerful Mystic River (2001). Now Lehane has made another leap. As big an advance beyond Mystic River as Mystic River was from his earlier books, The Given Day aspires to be nothing less than the Great American Novel, an ambition that critics began questioning just as baseball lost its position as America’s National Pastime. The Given Day isn’t a baseball novel. Its focus is the Boston police strike of 1919 and the bloody riots that resulted. But it’s really about the American dream, the resistance to change, the subversion of a country’s brightest ideals through its darkest impulses. It’s a novel about, as Lehane writes, “the terrible smallness of men.” It’s a novel about “the fist beneath the velvet glove of democracy.” The poor aren’t necessarily noble; the rich aren’t inherently evil. All are profoundly, humanly flawed. At the book’s heart is the intertwining story of two men. Danny Coughlin, a police officer from a powerfully connected family, finds himself at various times a strike breaker, a strike leader and an undercover infiltrator. He’s in love with an Irish immigrant whose past violates the morality he has inherited from his family, and he must decide if he’s strong enough to follow his heart. Danny might be a tragic hero, but his heroism pales against the courage of Luther Laurence, a black man suspected of being a criminal on the run but one who forges a bond with the Boston cop. Though Luther has abandoned his family, fallen into illicit activity and killed to save his own life, he develops a moral code stronger than that of anyone else in the novel.

The Given Day isn’t flawless. Parts of the plot and some of the dialogue veer toward soap opera, and many of the characters aren’t as fully fleshed as Danny and Luther—or Babe Ruth. Yet the novel’s larger-than-life ambitions make its missteps seem minor. It has often been said that fans found one of Ruth’s prodigious strikeouts more thrilling than a slap single. If Lehane was ever a singles hitter, now he’s swinging for the fences.

Pub Date: Sept. 23, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-688-16318-1

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2008

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

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CIRCE

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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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