A beautiful family tale with lifelike characters that could have benefited from a stronger structure.



A pregnant Iraqi-American war veteran hides out on the property of a young seminarian in this novel.

Theodore Dash has returned to his mother’s northern Michigan hometown after the death of his grandfather. He learns that his relative has left him property while his brother, Nate, who is in the military in Iraq, is bequeathed $10,000. Theodore has been in a seminary and is conflicted about whether to return to it. The town of Empire is a magical place to him, a lush paradise on the Lake Michigan shore, full of happy childhood memories and surrounded by blooming apple orchards. There is also Brigid Birdsey, a young bar owner, whom Theodore is growing closer to. Throughout the narrative, poems written by a woman named Zaima al-Aziz appear, and eventually Zaima herself arrives in Empire. She is a young veteran just back from the Iraq war, and she is in the early stages of pregnancy. She finds refuge in a church but soon makes her way to the Dash homestead. Hiding out in the barn, she keeps a low profile, unwilling to return to her parents’ home in Dearborn, and not wanting to make contact with the Dash family, at least not yet. Theodore’s mother, Isabelle, a high-powered Chicago lawyer, was “never cut out to swim” in this piddling “little fish bowl.” She encourages Theodore to sell the property and use the money to help his brother get settled once he returns from Iraq. When Zaima finally becomes known to Theodore, a story begins to emerge that calls into question family relationships and everyone’s long-term plans. Packard (Paint the Bird, 2013, etc.) paints a gorgeous picture of northern Michigan and is clearly well-versed in the ins and outs of life around the Great Lakes, from small towns to Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. The emotions that these places evoke in the characters are well-described, as is the desire to be near people but not too close. But the novel meanders in the middle, and the absence of a strong story arc becomes obvious. Details about characters are revealed slowly over time, making it a long wait for the inevitable confrontation that is bound to occur near the end of the book.

A beautiful family tale with lifelike characters that could have benefited from a stronger structure.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-57962-528-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Permanent Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2018

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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