Artfully written but more likely to attract attention for its subject than its author’s craft.

THE CAPE DOCTOR

Historical fiction from the award-winning author of Love, in Theory (2012).

During his career as a physician with the Royal Army, James Miranda Barry served at various posts throughout the British Empire. He gained renown not only for improving the health care received by soldiers, but also for demanding better living conditions for enslaved people, prisoners, lepers, and the mentally ill. When he died in 1865, it was revealed that he had female genitalia. At the time, Barry was popularly characterized as a woman masquerading as a man or as a hermaphrodite. Contemporary activists and some historians, though, have claimed him as a transgender hero, noting that he lived his entire adult life as a man and took pains to conceal his body from scrutiny upon death. The tension between these two ways of categorizing Barry illustrates why this novel became controversial before anyone had read it, when Levy described her protagonist as “a heroine for our time, for all time.” Levy points out that her work is fiction—in a move that is likely to assuage no one, she has given her character the name Jonathan Mirandus Perry—but she also insists that she “read and researched [Barry] for years,” according to The Guardian, and rejects the idea that we can retroactively apply concepts like transgender to historical figures, which will sound to some like claims of authority. Her Dr. Perry does not come to realize that he’s a man; instead Perry adopts a new name and puts on a boy’s clothes in order to get an education and lives as a man because he refuses to accept the limitations inflicted on women. Perry refuses a marriage proposal from his friend and benefactor—he learns Perry’s secret—and even hides the birth of their child in order to maintain his public persona and continue his work. The relationship between Perry and Lord Somerton takes up a substantial part of the novel; indeed, it often reads like a Regency romance written by a “literary” author. Levy uses language with care, and there are some beautiful scenes here—particularly those that show Perry discovering his vocation. Describing human dissection, he muses, “The body was not…profaned by examination, as if one were cross-examining God, but honored by attention. Love, all love, is attention.”

Artfully written but more likely to attract attention for its subject than its author’s craft.

Pub Date: June 15, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-316-53658-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2021

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An alternately farcical and poignant look at family bonds.

THE SUMMER PLACE

When a family convenes at their Cape Cod summer home for a wedding, old secrets threaten to ruin everything.

Sarah Danhauser is shocked when her beloved stepdaughter announces her engagement to her boyfriend, Gabe. After all, Ruby’s only 22, and Sarah suspects that their relationship was fast-tracked because of the time they spent together in quarantine during the early days of the pandemic. Sarah’s mother, Veronica, is thrilled, mostly because she longs to have the entire family together for one last celebration before she puts their Cape Cod summer house on the market. But getting to Ruby and Gabe’s wedding might prove more difficult than anyone thought. Sarah can’t figure out why her husband, Eli, has been so distant and distracted ever since Ruby moved home to Park Slope (bringing Gabe with her), and she's afraid he may be having an affair. Veronica is afraid that a long-ago dalliance might come back to bite her. Ruby isn’t sure how to process the conflicting feelings she’s having about her upcoming nuptials. And Sam, Sarah’s twin brother, is a recent widower who’s dealing with some pretty big romantic confusion. As the entire extended family, along with Gabe’s relatives, converges on the summer house, secrets become impossible to keep, and it quickly becomes clear that this might not be the perfect gathering Veronica was envisioning. If they make it to the wedding, will their family survive the aftermath? Weiner creates a story with all the misunderstandings and miscommunications of a screwball comedy or a Shakespeare play (think A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But the surprising, over-the-top actions of the characters are grounded by a realistic and moving look at grief and ambition (particularly for Sarah and Veronica, both of whom give up demanding creative careers early on). At times the flashbacks can slow down the story, but even when the characters are lying, cheating, and hiding from each other, they still seem like a real and loving family.

An alternately farcical and poignant look at family bonds.

Pub Date: May 10, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-5011-3357-2

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2022

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Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it’s written.

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS

The Herculean efforts required to assemble the Oxford English Dictionary are retold, this time from a fictionalized, distaff point of view, in Williams’ debut novel.

Esme Nicoll, the motherless young daughter of a lexicographer working in the Scriptorium—in reality, a garden shed in Oxford where a team led by James Murray, one of the OED’s editors, toiled—accompanies her father to work frequently. The rigor and passion with which the project is managed is apparent to the sensitive and curious Esme, as is the fact that the editorial team of men labors under the influence of Victorian-era mores. Esme begins a clandestine operation to rescue words which have been overlooked or intentionally omitted from the epic dictionary. Her childhood undertaking becomes a lifelong endeavor, and her efforts to validate the words which flew under the (not yet invented) radar of the OED gatekeepers gain traction at the same time the women’s suffrage movement fructifies in England. The looming specter of World War I lends tension to Esme’s personal saga while a disparate cast of secondary characters adds pathos and depth. Underlying this panoramic account are lexicographical and philosophical interrogatives: Who owns language, does language reflect or affect, who chooses what is appropriate, why is one meaning worthier than another, what happens when a word mutates in meaning? (For example, the talismanic word first salvaged by Esme, bondmaid, pops up with capricious irregularity and amorphous meaning throughout the lengthy narrative.) Williams provides readers with detailed background and biographical information pointing to extensive research about the OED and its editors, many of whom appear as characters in Esme’s life. The result is a satisfying amalgam of truth and historical fiction.

Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it’s written.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-16019-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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