CHESAPEAKE

A NOVEL

Without the frame or the focus that loosely held Centennial together, this massive but arbitrarily fragmented East-Coast community history—a Maryland island, 1583-1978—is almost devoid of traditional novelistic pleasure. The hundred or so characters are firmly presented as types (e.g., "Bartley Paxmore, at thirty-one, was the new-style Quaker"), most of them members of three representative families: the Catholic, landowning, upper-class progeny of Edmund Steed, who explored the Chesapeake with John Smith in 1608; the dumb but spirited lower-class progeny of Timothy Turlock, who came to Maryland as an indentured servant; and the steady, middle-class, shipbuilding progeny of Quaker Edmund Paxmore, who was dumped in Maryland in 1661 after extensive Massachusetts whippings. Over the years, these clans must deal with pirates, storms, incest, sexism (yes, many of the women here are unlikely feminists), bastards born of philandering, the Revolution (all three broods eventually join in, even the royalist Steeds), and—about half the book—the slavery question. The Turlocks are slimy slave traders, the Steeds are gentle slave owners, the Paxmores are fierce abolitionists, and—in a rather shameless lift from Roots—the Caters are slaves who are seen under the whip and under the covers, in Mandingo-style triangles ("You want to stay longer, honey?"). On to the Civil War (eight pages), the oyster-dredging business, and the 20th Century—which is reduced to three bizarrely selective vignettes: a Paxmore rescuing 40,000 Jews from Hitler, the desegregation struggle, and. . . Watergate, with another Paxmore committing suicide over his White House involvement. As fiction, then—shallow and sketchy throughout, with no theme (except "It's gone. It's all gone") to link or enrich the melodramatic episodes. Nor does all of Michener's digested research produce painless fact feasts: much reads like a junior-high text ("Three reasons accounted for this"); the guest appearances by such as Henry Clay and Geo. Washington ("Your deal, General") seem silly; and the dialectic debates on religion and slavery are dull. But on such matters as shipbuilding, oystering, duck-hunting, Jimmy the blue crab ("that delicious crustacean"), and Onk-or the goose, Michener is a grand popularizer of craft and science. That considerable gift, together with the immense Michener clout, is sure to send millions of readers plunging into what seems like a million blandly readable pages of humdrum history and formula fiction.

Pub Date: July 24, 1978

ISBN: 0812970438

Page Count: 896

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1978

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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