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LESSONS

A richly observed story that spans decades to recount lives of sometimes-noisy desperation.

A tale of aspiration, disappointment, and familial dysfunction spread across a vast historic panorama.

Embracing the years from the Blitz to Brexit, McEwan’s latest finds Roland Baines, an unaccomplished fellow who scrapes out a living as a lounge pianist and sometime journalist, worrying about his infant son, Lawrence: “Shocked, numbed, scar tissue forming within hours in the lower regions of the unconscious, if such a place or process existed?” The boy has good reason to be damaged, for his mother, Alissa, has abandoned them. She will go on to great things, writing bestselling novels and, decades on, a memoir that will falsely accuse Roland of very bad behavior. Alissa is working out a trauma born of other sources, while Roland floats along, remembering traumas of his own, including piano lessons with plenty of illicit extras at his boarding school. McEwan weaves in the traumas of world history as well: As the story opens, the failed nuclear generator at Chernobyl is emitting radioactive toxins that threaten the world. Other formative moments include the Suez Canal crisis, Covid, and 9/11, which causes Roland more than his usual angst: “Only a minuscule faction, credulous and cruel, believed that the New York hijackers reclined in paradise and should be followed. But here, in a population of 60 million, there must be some.” McEwan is fond of having his characters guess wrongly about what’s to come: A detective scoffs at forensics based on genetics (“Fashionable rubbish”), while Roland nurses a “theory that the Chernobyl disaster would mark the beginning of the end for nuclear weapons.” Well along his path, though, Roland comes to realize a point learned in childhood but forgotten: “Nothing is ever as you imagine it.” True, but McEwan’s imagination delivers plenty of family secrets and reflects on “so many lessons unlearned” in a world that’s clearly wobbling off its axis.

A richly observed story that spans decades to recount lives of sometimes-noisy desperation.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-53520-2

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2022

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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LONG ISLAND

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

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An acclaimed novelist revisits the central characters of his best-known work.

At the end of Brooklyn (2009), Eilis Lacey departed Ireland for the second and final time—headed back to New York and the Italian American husband she had secretly married after first traveling there for work. In her hometown of Enniscorthy, she left behind Jim Farrell, a young man she’d fallen in love with during her visit, and the inevitable gossip about her conduct. Tóibín’s 11th novel introduces readers to Eilis 20 years later, in 1976, still married to Tony Fiorello and living in the titular suburbia with their two teenage children. But Eilis’ seemingly placid existence is disturbed when a stranger confronts her, accusing Tony of having an affair with his wife—now pregnant—and threatening to leave the baby on their doorstep. “She’d known men like this in Ireland,” Tóibín writes. “Should one of them discover that their wife had been unfaithful and was pregnant as a result, they would not have the baby in the house.” This shock sends Eilis back to Enniscorthy for a visit—or perhaps a longer stay. (Eilis’ motives are as inscrutable as ever, even to herself.) She finds the never-married Jim managing his late father’s pub; unbeknownst to Eilis (and the town), he’s become involved with her widowed friend Nancy, who struggles to maintain the family chip shop. Eilis herself appears different to her old friends: “Something had happened to her in America,” Nancy concludes. Although the novel begins with a soap-operatic confrontation—and ends with a dramatic denouement, as Eilis’ fate is determined in a plot twist worthy of Edith Wharton—the author is a master of quiet, restrained prose, calmly observing the mores and mindsets of provincial Ireland, not much changed from the 1950s.

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

Pub Date: May 7, 2024

ISBN: 9781476785110

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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