Thick with ominous mystery but never sacrificing its characters’ integrity in deference to atmosphere or plot.


Daughter of the local wise woman has to step up to the plate when Ma falls ill.

For master fantasist Joyce (The Facts of Life, 2003, etc.), the business of keeping traditions alive is not exactly fraught with fairies and spelldust, but it’s a grotty and human-bound affair—and fascinating nonetheless. In a tiny British village in the 1960s, the winds of modernity are upsetting the livelihood of the Cullen women. The elder Cullen, Mammy, is a midwife of near-legendary repute, though her business has been falling off lately due to the National Health Service providing free midwives fully versed in the more soulless modern techniques. After a local girl dies from an abortifacient administered by Mammy, the townspeople turn against her and an attack by a mysterious assailant puts her in the hospital. But while Mammy’s stern, wise, and sarcastic demeanor casts a shadow over the whole story, this is really about her teenaged daughter, Fern, who is forced to take over, in effect, the family business—of midwifery, herbology, small sewing jobs, baking, and caretaking of local secrets—after Mammy is laid up. Joyce has a warm touch with Fern, giving her a tough, antisocial exterior that belies the utter confusion and roiling adolescent agonies that plague her narration. Trying to keep her and Mammy from eviction, figuring out how to continue in Mammy’s footsteps without her around (if she even wants to), dealing with the local hippies and trying (maybe) to lose her virginity—it’s a lot for one girl to handle. Darker shadows unfurl after Mammy imparts to Fern the roster of local secrets she’s been privy to in her profession, and malicious figures begin to gather, trying to ensure that Fern will keep her mouth shut. This is an uncommonly powerful tale about knowledge and the things swept aside in the rush to the future.

Thick with ominous mystery but never sacrificing its characters’ integrity in deference to atmosphere or plot.

Pub Date: Feb. 22, 2005

ISBN: 0-7434-6344-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2004

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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