A well-written but underplotted tale about family dynamics and interpersonal relationships.



A literary novel tells the story of an American woman’s involvement with a family of Pakistani refugees.

Tillie Marsden of Bishop Grove, Oregon, has an altruistic bent that she attempts to satisfy through various activities: gardening, working for the American Cancer Society, and volunteering at her church. Her husband, the fiscally conservative though generally benign workaholic Bill, doesn’t really understand his wife’s drive. Her stepson, Jacob, a surly college student who hasn’t yet moved out, offers Tillie mostly silence. Through her pastor, Tillie is connected to a family of newly resettled Pakistani refugees in order to help them assimilate into life in Bishop Grove. Attempting (not always successfully) to check her prejudices at the door, Tillie enters the lives of Bahram, Mira, and their seven young children. They don’t offer Tillie much in the way of their backstory, and she is too polite to ask, though she can’t help but pick up on some tensions in their household. Bahram, a former translator for a U.S. contractor, is enthusiastic about American life, but Mira and the children seem less so. “Didn’t Bahram notice that his wife seemed unhappy?” Tillie wonders. “Can’t he see that there’s something not right with the kids?” Her interactions with Bahram and Mira cause Tillie to begin to question her own (third) marriage and the struggles she has with her blended family—struggles that she perceived as American but which may in fact be universal. Tillie’s association with this new family will force new perspectives on the other relationships in her life, though not always in the way one would expect. Daniels (Venus Looks Down on a Prairie Vole, 2016, etc.) writes in an elegant, fluid prose that keeps close to the thoughts of his characters as they observe and interrogate the people around them: “As he continued to laud all things American, or at least Oregonian, Tillie felt restless. Bahram’s affectations were taking on a bitter flavor, suggesting a back-story that was less about greener grass and more about corrupt humanity.” Tillie is particularly prone to second-guessing the words and motives of others, creating a mood of tense mystery in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward tale. The deep dive that the author takes into the twinned lives of the two families is an admirable attempt to figure out something about America’s view of itself and the outside world. Even so, the book does not offer much in the way of plot (particularly for a novel that is 350 pages). Much of the narrative hinges on unasked questions and misunderstandings, resulting in a rather shapeless and unsatisfying final act. Tillie is well-constructed and emotionally coherent, with motivations that are believably rooted in her personal history. Readers’ connections to her should manage to sustain them for most of the story. By the end, though, they will likely wish that Tillie was pushed a little more (and more often) into situations that would dramatize her inner conflicts on a larger scale.

A well-written but underplotted tale about family dynamics and interpersonal relationships.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-692-93849-2

Page Count: 350

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 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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