Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue’s best novel since Room (2010).

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THE PULL OF THE STARS

A nurse in a Dublin hospital battles the ordinary hazards of childbirth and the extraordinary dangers of the 1918 flu.

Donoghue began writing this novel during the 1918 pandemic’s centennial year, before COVID-19 gave it the grim contemporary relevance echoing through her text: signs warning, “IF IN DOUBT, DONT STIR OUT,” an overwhelmed hospital bedding patients on the floor, stores running out of disinfectant. These details provide a thrumming background noise to the central drama of women’s lives brought into hard focus by pregnancy and birth. Julia Power works in Maternity/Fever, a supply room converted to handle pregnant women infected with the flu. The disease makes labor and delivery even more high risk than normal. On Oct. 31, 1918, Julia arrives to learn that one of her patients died in the night, and over the next two days we see her cope with three harrowing deliveries, only one of which ends well. Donoghue depicts these deliveries in unflinching detail, but the gruesome particulars serve to underscore Julia’s heroic commitment to saving women and their babies in a world that does little for either. Her budding friendship with able new assistant Bridie Sweeney, one of the ill-treated “boarders” at a nearby convent, gives Julia a glimpse of how unwanted and illegitimate children are abused in Catholic Ireland. As far as she’s concerned, the common saying “She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve,” referring to children, reveals total indifference to women’s health and their children’s prospects. Donoghue isn’t a showy writer, but her prose sings with blunt poetry, as in the exchange between Julia and Bridie that gives the novel its title. Influenza gets its name from an old Italian belief that it was the influence of the stars that made you sick, Julia explains; Bridie responds, “As if, when it’s your time, your star gives you a yank.” Their relationship forms the emotional core of a story rich in swift, assured sketches of achingly human characters coping as best they can in extreme circumstances.

Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue’s best novel since Room (2010).

Pub Date: July 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-49901-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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An intriguing meditation on the meaning of “meant to be.”

MEANT TO BE

Giffin’s latest charts the course of true love between an American aristocrat and a troubled fashionista.

Almost immediately, readers will guess that Giffin’s protagonist, Joseph S. Kingsley III, a media darling since birth, is a re-creation of John F. Kennedy Jr. In addition to Joe’s darkly handsome good looks, there are many other similarities, such as his double failure of the New York bar exam and his stint as a Manhattan assistant district attorney. But Joe’s late father was an astronaut, not the president, and locations associated with the Kennedys, such as Hyannis Port and Martha’s Vineyard, have been moved to the Hamptons and Annapolis. Instead of a sister, Joe has a protective female best friend, Berry Wainwright. Readers may be so obsessed with teasing out fact from fiction, and wondering if the outcome for Joe is going to be as tragic as JFK Jr.’s fatal 1999 flight, that they may be distracted from the engaging story of Joe’s co-protagonist, Cate Cooper, who is—apart from a superficial resemblance to Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy—largely a fictional creation. When Joe and Cate meet-cute on a Hamptons beach where Cate, a model, is posing, both are immediately smitten. However, the paparazzi are determined to milk every ounce of scandal from the social chasm separating them. On the surface, Cate is the product of a middle-class upbringing in Montclair, New Jersey, but her interrupted education and her forced flight from an abusive home have shamed as well as strengthened her. Like her real-life counterpart, Cate rises in the fashion industry and becomes known for her minimalist style. The couple’s courtship drags a bit on the page despite witty banter and steamy encounters. It is the conflict brewing when their pedigrees clash, and, particularly, Cate’s consciousness of the disparity, that grips us. Whether these knockoffs can avoid the fates of the originals is the main source of suspense here.

An intriguing meditation on the meaning of “meant to be.”

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-425-28664-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: April 12, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2022

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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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