This beautifully written, carefully plotted, intelligent debut is a melancholy pleasure.



A gay teenager with a traumatic past takes up his dead lover’s quest for the elixir of life.

Conrad, the on-and-off narrator of Wolff’s debut novel, lost his mother to a fire at age 10, and soon afterward his father descended into alcoholism, liver disease, and furious gloom. When the novel opens, he’s a high school senior living with his aunt, having an affair with his chemistry teacher, and working on a science project about electroshock and memory in rats. When the teacher, Sammy Tampari, is found dead—from suicide? a drug overdose? an experiment gone wrong?—Conrad is pulled ever deeper into an alchemical plot he had not known he was part of, seeking a medical treatment that will save his father by vanquishing death itself. The novel straddles a few decades surrounding the present, ducking back to Sammy’s youth as a depressed gay teenager himself and forward into Conrad’s future as a scientist worried about his husband’s brain-cancer diagnosis. The narration shifts around between first person and third, the point of view alternates between Conrad and Sammy, and the settings include Maine, New York City, Romania, and Easter Island as strongmen, drug dealers, and pharmaceutical researchers join the hunt for a panacea that can cross the blood-brain barrier. More than just a briskly plotted thriller, the book is a meditation on love and loss. The characters’ obsession with the elixir brings home the parallels between eternal life and death: Both are a kind of certainty. The best part is the author’s figurative descriptions, which teeter between quips and revelations. Conrad describes his aunt’s concern for him: “I knew that…the way she treated me, was called ‘love,’ even though it made me feel small and different and as if I would never be loved by anyone the way I was meant to be (like someone who deserved love and didn’t simply need it, like a blood transfusion).” When his lover apologizes, “I had steeled myself to stay angry, but his voice was a snake-bite. Happiness filled me like venom.” Sammy contemplates his own mental state: “The real torture of mental illness is this lingering sensation that normalcy is a thought away, that if only you were strong enough, you could think your way out of it.”

This beautifully written, carefully plotted, intelligent debut is a melancholy pleasure.

Pub Date: June 11, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-17066-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet



A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

Did you like this book?

With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

Google Rating

  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2017

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller


This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright.

It’s not for nothing that Ng (Everything I Never Told You, 2014) begins her second novel, about the events leading to the burning of the home of an outwardly perfect-seeming family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997, with two epigraphs about the planned community itself—attesting to its ability to provide its residents with “protection forever against…unwelcome change” and “a rather happy life” in Utopia. But unwelcome change is precisely what disrupts the Richardson family’s rather happy life, when Mia, a charismatic, somewhat mysterious artist, and her smart, shy 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, move to town and become tenants in a rental house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents. Mia and Pearl live a markedly different life from the Richardsons, an affluent couple and their four high school–age children—making art instead of money (apart from what little they need to get by); rooted in each other rather than a particular place (packing up what fits in their battered VW and moving on when “the bug” hits); and assembling a hodgepodge home from creatively repurposed, scavenged castoffs and love rather than gathering around them the symbols of a successful life in the American suburbs (a big house, a large family, gleaming appliances, chic clothes, many cars). What really sets Mia and Pearl apart and sets in motion the events leading to the “little fires everywhere” that will consume the Richardsons’ secure, stable world, however, is the way they hew to their own rules. In a place like Shaker Heights, a town built on plans and rules, and for a family like the Richardsons, who have structured their lives according to them, disdain for conformity acts as an accelerant, setting fire to the dormant sparks within them. The ultimate effect is cataclysmic. As in Everything I Never Told You, Ng conjures a sense of place and displacement and shows a remarkable ability to see—and reveal—a story from different perspectives. The characters she creates here are wonderfully appealing, and watching their paths connect—like little trails of flame leading inexorably toward one another to create a big inferno—is mesmerizing, casting into new light ideas about creativity and consumerism, parenthood and privilege.

With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2429-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2017

Did you like this book?