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THE EFFECT OF LIVING BACKWARDS

Julavits does everything she can to turn readers off. But that may be her point.

Following her seriously dark first novel (The Mineral Palace, 2000), Julavits takes a real risk with this black comedy about an airplane hijacking, not exactly the subject to tickle most funny bones these days.

Having survived to become a student herself at the International Institute for Terrorist Studies, Alice recounts her hostage experience when Bruno, incongruously a blind man, and two inept cohorts take over the plane she and her sister Edith are passengers on, flying to Edith’s wedding in Morocco. The story is as much about sibling love and rivalry as about the ethical issues raised by terrorism—the women’s mutual devotion is balanced by their intense competitiveness for attention. As for the terrorists, it isn’t at all clear how dangerous they are, or whether the hijacking is some kind of elaborate hoax. The one hostage who’s shot—Edith thought the guns weren’t loaded—had already died of a heart attack. Although the other passengers seem frightened, Alice is never sure who’s real. She and Edith are genuinely scared even as they vie for Bruno’s attention. Edith uses sex. Alice, since she’s fluent in obscure languages, becomes the “the conduit” between Bruno and the hostage negotiator, who turns out to be Bruno’s brother. Apparently, these two siblings have followed different theories of fighting terrorism, and the outcome of the hijacking will determine who was right. Though ongoing banter between characters is meant to be both comic and profound, Julavits underlines her themes too heavily, especially the untrustworthiness of reality. The playing out of the hijacking itself is almost dull as hostages are released and the perpetrators disperse, allowing for no dramatic closure, so that the mystery of what really happened remains behind. In contrast to Ann Patchett’s humanistic view of the hostage experience in Bel Canto, Julavits’s brittle tone and edgy irony allow no reader empathy.

Julavits does everything she can to turn readers off. But that may be her point.

Pub Date: July 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-399-15049-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2003

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A LITTLE LIFE

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. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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