The changing language, landscape, and mores of three centuries of American history are depicted with verisimilitude,...

THE MAZE AT WINDERMERE

Five parallel stories, from Colonial times to the present, set in Newport, Rhode Island.

The maze of Smith’s (The Law of Miracles, 2011, etc.) title is a feature of a Gilded Age estate that appears in two of the five narratives wound together here, as do other links, like women named Alice, allusions to Henry James, opportunists, closeted gay characters, chess moves, and more. In 2011, we meet a tennis pro named Sandy who is riding on his muscular physique, pleasant personality, and a vintage motorcycle he won in a bet to keep himself going among the rich of Newport. Quickly his complications include sleeping with both a du Pont heiress and another member of her household at Windermere. In 1896, on the same spot, good looks and charm are also the stock in trade of one Franklin Drexel, a secretly gay man who is hoping to butter up a rich widow and score himself a propertied marriage. In 1863, a budding writer who turns out to be Henry James himself is dallying among a similar crowd, but his concealed purpose is not matrimony but rather material for his writing. In 1778, we follow the attempts of a British officer billeted at what is left of occupied Newport to get the attention of a 16-year-old “Jewess” he's obsessed with. Due to his repugnant anti-Semitism, he plans only to wrest her from her father’s protection, deflower her, and cast her aside. In 1692, Prudence Selwyn is just beginning to accept that her father’s ship is not coming back and that she and her little sister, Dorcas, are orphans. She’s 15, her only asset is a young female slave, and their options look very grim indeed. What seems overly complicated at first becomes quite compelling by the end, when the stories alternate in ever shorter flashes toward resolution—though, oddly, only one of them comes to what feels like a satisfying ending.

The changing language, landscape, and mores of three centuries of American history are depicted with verisimilitude, highlighting what doesn't change at all: the aspirations and crimes of the human heart.

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2192-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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