A quietly luminous tale of folksy gender-bending that’s entertaining and authentic.

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EARTH AS IT IS

A small-town hairdresser is not quite what she seems in this novel of life under cover.

Charlie Bader, a dentist living in Dallas in 1933, is happily married until his wife catches him lounging in her nightgown doing his nails. She runs off to New Boston, Texas, to train for missionary work in Africa. He relocates to Chicago, where he finds a circle of secretly cross-dressing men—most of whom, like him, are staunchly heterosexual—who give him fashion advice, invite him to drag teas, help him cultivate a high-pitched lilt, and call him “Charlene.” But Charlie’s life is still lonely, as he feels unable to approach a woman, for fear she will discover his hidden passion and reject him. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, he emerges feeling even further alienated from his manhood. He goes to the town of Heaven, Indiana, to live as a woman, using well-honed makeover skills to open a hairstyling and manicure salon. Charlie’s perspective shifts from studying womanhood through the eyes of a man to connecting more intimately with it through the lives of Charlene’s customers. Her beauty shop becomes a gathering place for the ladies of Heaven to trade gossip, hatch plans, and share confidences with the always sympathetic and discreet Charlene. She initially basks in Heaven’s seeming quiet and orderliness, but tension builds as she falls in love with a customer, knowing that she might be run out of town if she voices her feelings. Maher (Heaven, Indiana, 2000, etc.) treats Charlene’s story with sensitivity and nuance, letting it entwine organically with the life of the town that first appeared in her previous novel. Charlie’s early exploration of femininity is portrayed as less sexual than sensual, consisting of a fascination with elegant outfits, perfectly poised manners, and the seductive tactile pleasure of women’s clothing: “The silkiness felt exquisite and forbidding, soothing and terrible, comforting and dangerously damning.” The author’s limpid prose also captures the subtleties of women’s lives, from catty fencing—“Elizabeth Tipton had a way of complimenting you, Minnie thought, that almost made you feel like she didn’t take you seriously”—to a 10-year-old’s clumsy stabs at sophistication to the exasperated kindness of a daughter caring for her parents. The writing is suffused with deadpan humor but resists caricatures; Charlene balances her furtive yearnings with sober restraint, and her customers aren’t small-minded yokels but complex, curious people who are willing to expand their horizons. Heaven is a richly textured place of church socials, quilting and pie-making contests at the county fair, and neighborly help for families burdened by sickness and age. But there are darker elements, as well, such as a con man who threatens to expose Charlene and a mystery involving a teenage girl who died after giving birth to a now-missing child. In Maher’s tapestry, the unconventional, even subversive, impulses of misfits and “ordinary” folk find a place in a convincing whole.

A quietly luminous tale of folksy gender-bending that’s entertaining and authentic.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-253-02404-6

Page Count: 276

Publisher: Break Away Book Club Edition

Review Posted Online: Aug. 10, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A steamy, glitzy, and tender tale of college intrigue.

THE CHASE

From the Briar U series

In this opener to Kennedy’s (Hot & Bothered, 2017, etc.) Briar U romance series, two likable students keep getting their signals crossed.

Twenty-one-year-old Summer Heyward-Di Laurentis is expelled from Brown University in the middle of her junior year because she was responsible for a fire at the Kappa Beta Nu sorority house. Fortunately, her father has connections, so she’s now enrolled in Briar University, a prestigious institution about an hour outside Boston. But as she’s about to move into Briar’s Kappa Beta Nu house, she’s asked to leave by the sisters, who don’t want her besmirching their reputation. Her older brother Dean, who’s a former Briar hockey star, comes to her rescue; his buddies, who are still on the hockey team, need a fourth roommate for their townhouse. Three good-looking hockey jocks and a very rich, gorgeous fashion major under the same roof—what could go wrong? Summer becomes quickly infatuated with one of her housemates: Dean’s best friend Colin “Fitzy” Fitzgerald. There’s a definite spark between them, and they exchange smoldering looks, but the tattooed Fitzy, who’s also a video game reviewer and designer, is an introvert who prefers no “drama” in his life. Summer, however, is a charming extrovert, although she has an inferiority complex about her flagging scholastic acumen. As the story goes on, the pair seem to misinterpret each other’s every move. Meanwhile, another roommate and potential suitor, Hunter Davenport, is waiting in the wings. Kennedy’s novel is full of sex, alcohol, and college-level profanity, but it never becomes formulaic. The author adroitly employs snappy dialogue, steady pacing, and humor, as in a scene at a runway fashion show featuring Briar jocks parading in Summer-designed swimwear. The book also manages to touch on some serious subjects, including learning disabilities and abusive behavior by faculty members. Summer and Fitzy’s repeated stumbles propel the plot through engaging twists and turns; the characters trade off narrating the story, which gives each of them a chance to reveal some substance.

A steamy, glitzy, and tender tale of college intrigue.    

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-72482-199-7

Page Count: 372

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Jan. 28, 2019

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