Remarkable in its mature complexity of method and manner, though less so in its substance: a minor book crying to be let out...

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SCHOOLING

A first novel packed to the bursting point with verbal and novelistic skills—and yet the whole misses being sustaining.

American Catrine Evans is 14 (or almost) when she comes to the English boarding school Monstead—the same school her Welsh-born father, back in the 1940s, attended. Immediately, the reader is immersed in a shifting, often near–stream-of-consciousness, narrative that doesn’t so much provide eventfulness—sniffing glue, trying false eyelashes in a shop, watching cricket, rehearsing a play—as release floods of the atmosphere and ambiance of school, of other students—male and female—and staff, including the suspiciously strait-laced Mr. Betts (English) and the nice Mr. Gilbert (chemistry) who “rescues” Catrine by taking her home for toast and tea when he finds her alone out in the cold—seemingly lost in a state of the hyper-meditativeness that occupies much of her time: for Catrine comes to Monstead trailing clouds of fear and trauma, partly due to her mother’s death six months previously, in Maine, and partly to her sickening belief that, with another girl, she may have caused a traffic accident and killed a man. Both traumas, however, albeit woven conscientiously through the brocade-like riches of McGowan’s many-worded imaginings, get gradually left behind as the greater theme of Mr. Gilbert’s mentor-like friendship for Catrine emerges, includes museum outings, art instruction (Mr. Gilbert also paints), finally even a weekend visit to his childhood home to visit his mother—as all the while question-knives are silently sharpened, being readied to ask what the nature of Mr. Gilbert’s (he’s 34) interest really is . . . . Guessing can do no harm, as neither can hinting, though it can be said, in spite of a long Molly-Bloomish stream plugged in for cloture, that the end far from lives up to the book.

Remarkable in its mature complexity of method and manner, though less so in its substance: a minor book crying to be let out of the trappings of a major one.

Pub Date: June 19, 2001

ISBN: 0-385-50138-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2001

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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MY DARK VANESSA

The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled...

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

A riveting, potentially redemptive story of modern American suburbia that reads almost like an ancient Greek tragedy.

When the Whitmans, a nouveau riche white family, move into a sprawling, newly built house next door to Valerie Alston-Holt, a black professor of forestry and ecology, and her musically gifted, biracial 18-year-old son, Xavier, in a modest, diverse North Carolina neighborhood of cozy ranch houses on wooded lots, it is clear from the outset things will not end well. The neighborhood itself, which serves as the novel’s narrator and chorus, tells us so. The story begins on “a Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them,” we are informed in the book’s opening paragraph. “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” The exact nature of the tragedy that has been foretold and questions of blame come into focus gradually as a series of events is set inexorably in motion when the Whitmans’ cloistered 17-year-old daughter, Juniper, encounters Xavier. The two teenagers tumble into a furtive, pure-hearted romance even as Xavier’s mom and Juniper’s stepfather, Brad, a slick operator who runs a successful HVAC business and has secrets of his own, lock horns in a legal battle over a dying tree. As the novel builds toward its devastating climax, it nimbly negotiates issues of race and racism, class and gentrification, sex and sexual violence, environmental destruction and other highly charged topics. Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018, etc.) empathetically conjures nuanced characters we won’t soon forget, expertly weaves together their stories, and imbues the plot with a sense of inevitability and urgency. In the end, she offers an opportunity for catharsis as well as a heartfelt, hopeful call to action.

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled times.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-23727-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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