THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING

A sharply intelligent, warmhearted embrace of human imperfection—the kind of book that invites a second reading.

Despite various mysteries and suspicious deaths in this story about a Montana woman uncovering secrets past and present, Harrison wisely concentrates less on plot twists than on exploring the trickiness of memory where love and family are concerned.

Over the course of a week in the summer of 2002, 42-year-old Polly, a married mother of two and sometime editor who helps her husband run his restaurant in Livingston, Montana, finds herself coping with several crises at once. Since a recent bicycle accident, Polly has struggled with memory problems, remembering too much as well as too little. As she prepares for a large family reunion to celebrate her great aunt Maude’s 90th birthday, disjointed images of the past haunt her, and arguments with her mother, Jane—a highly successful historian who's written about "the eternal nature of stories"—about whether some of Polly’s memories may be false, have exacerbated her fear of losing her mind. Meanwhile, her children’s babysitter, Ariel, is missing and presumed drowned after a kayaking mishap. The tragedy involves Polly and the tight-knit Livingston community first in a search for Ariel, then in mourning, then in uncomfortable suspicions surrounding Ariel’s kayaking companion and apparent boyfriend. Polly’s emotional turmoil is the center of the novel as she fixates not only on Ariel’s death, but also on what exactly happened in 1968, "when her world blew up.” Another layer of understanding comes in chapters in which the 1968 events, extremes of joy and tragedy, are seen through Polly’s limited 7-year-old perspective. The result is a kaleidoscope of facts and recollections that reveal emotional as well as factual truth only in tantalizing fragments. Some mysteries remain unsolved; others Polly solves, sometimes to her dismay. Through small moments, particularly shared meals and drinks, the reader becomes intimately involved in Polly’s inner life and falls in love with a vividly portrayed Montana devoid of Western clichés.

A sharply intelligent, warmhearted embrace of human imperfection—the kind of book that invites a second reading.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-64009-234-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: March 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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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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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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