A Victorian/Edwardian pastiche that manages to entertain as much as it impresses.



In this literary debut, a Western family’s dark past ensnares the lives of two Rhode Island sisters at the dawn of the 20th century.

Clare Farnsworth, part of a famously well-off Newport family, has always been the difficult one. Eleanor, her older sister by six years, submitted to a marriage to a lawyer from a wealthy (if vaguely disreputable) family, but Clare insists on attending art school and quipping about the patriarchy. Needless to say, the two sisters don’t exactly get along. “We littered our sparse conversations with platitudes,” writes Eleanor. “She considered me submerged in a misbegotten marriage and I presumed her preoccupied with esoteric, perhaps debauched, ventures in faraway Providence.” Eleanor’s husband is Marlon Slade, whose family fortune originated with his father, a Navy deserter and gold prospector who supposedly murdered his two partners upon discovering a lode. Eleanor quickly grows suspicious of her husband, who keeps an apartment in New York City while she runs the house in Westchester County. When Marlon suggests that he wants to visit his family in California, Clare—whose interest in the West has been piqued at art school—invites herself along for the journey. Marlon’s father has since died, and the remote Slade house is kept up by the attorney’s brother, the rustic Elbert. Clare quickly realizes that Elbert’s Native American wife, Otekah, has intuited what Eleanor has not: that Clare and Marlon are conducting an affair. When the pair returns to New York, the affair comes to light, and Clare suggests the unthinkable: that she move in with the couple and live as Marlon’s second wife. Eleanor refuses, but when Clare bears Marlon’s child, she is convinced to raise it as her own under the Slade name. The resentment between the two sisters—and the man betwixt them—ebbs and flows for decades, in constant danger of lending validity to an observation that Elbert made about his father when still a boy: “I heared about families all mean killers. Bad seed, folks say.”

Dussault’s novel has an epistolary structure, featuring narratives written by both Clare and Eleanor as well as the uneducated Elbert. Other sections come from books, newspaper articles, and similar documents. As a result, the author is always changing his register, and he proves highly proficient at writing in a number of voices. The tale pays homage to Victorian/Edwardian influences like Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser, and it manages to assimilate those periods’ preoccupations with American expansion and mythology. “We think of brave pioneers,” says one of Clare’s professors, speaking of the Gold Rush. “The land was overrun by ignoble bastards bound for wealth or Hell, whichever came first…Some earlybirds got fat. Latecomers tore at each other for the leavings. Gold exposed the cleft in the American soul.” The book has the length and pacing of works from that era and may, therefore, appear a bit mannered or slow to those used to contemporary literature. But at the center is a perennial story of sibling rivalry, family secrets, and the fruits of ruthless ambition centered on an artfully developed cast of characters.

A Victorian/Edwardian pastiche that manages to entertain as much as it impresses.

Pub Date: N/A


Page Count: -

Publisher: Manuscript

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2020

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled...


A riveting, potentially redemptive story of modern American suburbia that reads almost like an ancient Greek tragedy.

When the Whitmans, a nouveau riche white family, move into a sprawling, newly built house next door to Valerie Alston-Holt, a black professor of forestry and ecology, and her musically gifted, biracial 18-year-old son, Xavier, in a modest, diverse North Carolina neighborhood of cozy ranch houses on wooded lots, it is clear from the outset things will not end well. The neighborhood itself, which serves as the novel’s narrator and chorus, tells us so. The story begins on “a Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them,” we are informed in the book’s opening paragraph. “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” The exact nature of the tragedy that has been foretold and questions of blame come into focus gradually as a series of events is set inexorably in motion when the Whitmans’ cloistered 17-year-old daughter, Juniper, encounters Xavier. The two teenagers tumble into a furtive, pure-hearted romance even as Xavier’s mom and Juniper’s stepfather, Brad, a slick operator who runs a successful HVAC business and has secrets of his own, lock horns in a legal battle over a dying tree. As the novel builds toward its devastating climax, it nimbly negotiates issues of race and racism, class and gentrification, sex and sexual violence, environmental destruction and other highly charged topics. Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018, etc.) empathetically conjures nuanced characters we won’t soon forget, expertly weaves together their stories, and imbues the plot with a sense of inevitability and urgency. In the end, she offers an opportunity for catharsis as well as a heartfelt, hopeful call to action.

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled times.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-23727-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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