SHADOWS ON THE HUDSON

The late Nobelist (1904-91) left us yet another gift in this previously untranslated long novel, originally serialized in Yiddish in the Forward more than 40 years ago. The story, set in the late 1940s, begins with a masterly piece of exposition: a dinner party in New York City hosted by Boris Makaver, a refugee whose commercial success has enabled him to indulge his devotion to orthodox religious practices and generosity to friends whose assimilation to their new country has been less successful than his own. Boris's guests include his beautiful daughter Anna, unhappily married to attorney Stanislaw Luria; Professor David Shrage, a mathematician whose wife perished in the Holocaust; a saturnine doctor whose family hides a guilty collaborationist secret; and, most crucially, Hertz Grein, an idealistic scholar who has struck it rich in the stock market and is the object of Anna Luria's adulterous attentions. Singer explores the exhaustive combinings and recombinings of these lives with those of several other richly drawn characters, the most vivid of whom is Anna's first husband Yasha Kotik, a celebrated comic actor who will stop at nothing to achieve success and win back his former wife. Marriages and affairs fall apart; age and death take their toll; the wisdom of the scripture and kabbalah and the precepts of the great philosophers and avatars of modern science are passionately debated in extended conversations that seethe with drama. This is soap opera raised to the level of genius, in a consistently absorbing novel whose amazing breadth and verisimilitude suggest a contemporary Tolstoy. And Singer concludes it triumphantly, in a series of summaries of his several protagonists' fates, all of which are memorably encapsulated in the chastened Hertz Grein's simultaneous self-justification and apologia: "One cannot keep the Ten Commandments while one lives in a society that breaks them." A matchless portrait of human frailty seen from the perspective of a vast compassionate understanding. A major work, from one of the great modern novelists.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-374-26186-5

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1997

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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