Tips its hat with style to Mary Shelley and George Bernard Shaw.

THE PHILOSOPHER’S APPRENTICE

Arch-satirist Morrow (The Last Witchfinder, 2006, etc.) turns in a tumultuous take on humanity, philosophy and ethics that is as hilarious as it is outlandish.

The narrator and central figure of this classically inspired comedy about twisted science and bent beliefs is long-winded, self-centered philosophy student Mason Ambrose. To his dismay, Mason is at wit’s end after his life’s work, Ethics from the Earth, is torpedoed by an embittered rival. Offered a teaching position on an offshore island that would do Dr. Moreau proud, the good doctor is soon verbally jousting with his student, a damaged but headstrong savant named Londa, to whom he is supposed to impart no less than a functioning conscience. Though ferociously stubborn, Londa responds with verve when Mason presents her with manufactured philosophical conundrums. It turns out that the island’s matriarch (and Londa’s mother), geneticist Edwina Sabachthani, has been dabbling in genetics testing, producing breathing trees, a talking mutant iguana and other freaks of nature to be named later. To their peril, Mason and his fellow tutors agree to keep the secret of Londa and her aberrant siblings following Edwina’s early demise from a blood disorder. After escaping, Ambrose tries to settle into domesticity with a striking young English student but is completely unraveled by the abrupt appearance of a man calling himself John Snow—and calling Mason “father.” Meanwhile, Londa has abandoned science to become something of a celebrity à la Oprah, but on a grander scale and with a darker, gospel-inspired vision of a new golden age for humanity. Hurtling towards his destiny aboard a resurrected Titanic, Mason must choose between consummation and annihilation of his first love. “Try withholding your judgment till you’ve grasped the broader picture,” Londa advises him. A salutary caution for readers of this wildly ambitious morality play, a shrewd amalgamation of the sacred and the profane.

Tips its hat with style to Mary Shelley and George Bernard Shaw.

Pub Date: March 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-06-135144-0

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2008

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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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