Ambitious and well written, but way over the top.

THE MINERAL PALACE

An overwrought first novel, in which a young wife and mother encounters dust storms and despair in Depression-era Colorado.

Bena Jonssen and her husband, a physician, are moving to the small town of Pueblo with their seven-week-old son because back at the private clinic where he worked in Rochester, Minnesota, Dr. Ted Jonssen refused to give morphine to a woman who proved to be the mayor’s daughter. Or maybe her accusation that he molested her was true: the Jonssen marriage is already fraught with Bena’s knowledge of Ted’s infidelities. The action gets even more unpleasant in Pueblo, where the Jonssens’ babysitter matter-of-factly displays cigarette burns inflicted by her mother—and in an alley, Bena finds a pregnant prostitute sucking meat juices from butcher-shop paper. The local elite, subjects of Bena’s articles in The Pueblo Chieftain, also harbor nasty secrets. The Mineral Palace, built to promote Colorado’s mining wealth but now crumbling away on the outskirts, serves as an apt (albeit crushingly obvious) metaphor for this place of failed dreams and moral rot. To her credit, Julavits looks beyond her personal experiences for fictional material, but her reach exceeds her grasp. Everything is too studied, and none of the emotions rings quite true, not even Bena’s concern for her baby, who is alarmingly unresponsive to the world around him. The atmosphere is so bleak from the beginning that the increasingly grim developments become almost comical, though no one will be laughing at two horrific murders involving children or sordid revelations of sexual abuse and intra-family violence. Even the mysterious cowboy who attracts Bena ultimately commits a violent act, which is as implausible as the anachronistic talk at the Chieftain about newspapers “now competing with movies, books, and radio” as entertainment. It’s all too much; without the emotional anchor of characters to care about, the apocalyptic tone Julavits cultivates seems more affected than earned.

Ambitious and well written, but way over the top.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2000

ISBN: 0-399-14622-9

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2000

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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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