Hallberg has a fine novelist’s grace and sensitivity but delivers this story with a taxonomist’s heart.

READ REVIEW

A FIELD GUIDE TO THE NORTH AMERICAN FAMILY

What kind of relationships are best described in a guidebook supported by art photos? It’s complicated.

The success of Hallberg’s 2015 epic, City on Fire, prompted the reissue of this short but structurally ambitious novella, first published by a small press in 2007. As the title suggests, the story takes the form of a guidebook. Verso pages provide brief narrative sketches under thematic headings such as “Angst,” “Freedom,” and “Midlife Crisis”; recto pages feature documentary photos in a Mary Ellen Mark/Robert Frank vein, with cross-references and faux scientific captions. (“Fidelity is a lesser-known relative of the more common Infidelity.”) Despite all that apparatus (readers are also encouraged to bounce around chapters, à la Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch), the plot is straightforward, capturing the anxieties and tragedies of two neighboring middle-class Long Island families. The Harrisons are broken after the death of their patriarch while the Hungate parents have split up, forcing the teenage children in both houses to try various coping strategies: Tommy Harrison tells outsized lies about his accomplishments, Gabriel Hungate gets overly into graffiti and drugs, and cheerleader Lacey Harrison gets overly into Gabriel. Gabriel, we learn early on, has suffered an accident that sent him to a burn unit, and the various perspectives are unified by a mood of somberness and regret. (“Optimism is enormous at birth, and gradually shrinks to its adult size,” goes one typical intonation.) But there’s a disconnect between the pathos of the story and the medium through which Hallberg delivers it, a sense that for all the seriousness of the plight of the Harrisons and Hungates, they’re essentially satirical targets, half-awake booshwa suburbanites too concerned with “Entertainment” and “Fiscal Responsibility” when they should focus on “Meaning, Search For.”

Hallberg has a fine novelist’s grace and sensitivity but delivers this story with a taxonomist’s heart.

Pub Date: Oct. 31, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-101-87495-0

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

ALL ADULTS HERE

When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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