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WE SINNERS

It’s always a good thing when one wants more instead of less. A promising debut, and a glimpse at a hidden American...

Lovely, lyrical debut novel of a family in slowly unfolding crisis.

In a book said to have plenty of elements of roman à clef about it, University of Michigan M.F.A. Pylväinen recounts life in a family of Finnish-American true believers for whom the word “fundamentalist” doesn’t quite do the trick. The Rovaniemi family practices a particularly austere brand of Protestantism, or, as a daughter puts it, “a kind of Lutheranism where everyone is much more hung up on being Lutheran than all the other normal Lutherans.” She adds, for emphasis, “End of story.” But of course it’s not, as her bewildered Chinese-Malayan-American beau learns while trying to comprehend both Laestadianism and Uppu’s odd mom and pop, who have had their own struggles. As the novel opens, another daughter is just beginning to buck at the traces, explaining to another young suitor that she can’t go to the dance with him because—well, just because she can’t, end of story. And again, the story doesn’t end but unspools, ever so unhurriedly, to reveal the complex dynamic of a father who’s wound up way too tight “and now expressed everything, even anger, in disappointment,” though he’s not without his sympathetic aspects; a mother who beams love and support and who trusts her children implicitly; and the certainty the two elders share that the world is going to come and steal their children away, luring them to the big city, where they’ll wear fancy clothes and dance and fornicate. Even so, contemplates Pirjo, the matriarch, “You can lose your faith anywhere.” Considering what life has thrown at them, it’s amazing any of the family remains steadfast in their alienating religion, and some do indeed drift—but not always far and not always along paths that we might expect. Pylväinen can be faulted only for over-compression: her story, beautifully written, is taut to the point of snapping, and it could have used a couple of dozen more pages of breathing room.

It’s always a good thing when one wants more instead of less. A promising debut, and a glimpse at a hidden American subculture that few readers will suspect even exists.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9533-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

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. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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THEN SHE WAS GONE

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

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. 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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