Though rather too belabored and talky to match the impact of Smiley's impressive Barn Blind debut (1980), this claustrophobic, deathbed study of an edgy Des Moines family reaffirms her acute feel for silent wounds, thwarted affections, and complex domestic tensions. Ike Robison, 77, is severely ill from heart disease, staying in bed except for occasional trudgings downstairs—and so the three 50-ish Robison daughters have come to gather 'round mother Anna (the novel's central focus) during what seems to be a deathwatch. But family unity is, hardly the result in the 24 hours covered here. The daughters—especially handsome, industrious Claire, who took her late husband's illness "like a pole-vaulter clearing a two-story house"—urge stubborn, tired Anna to move "Daddy" into the living-room, to hire a nurse. Claire and beautiful, cosmopolitan, snobbish Helen continue their everlasting verbal duel. Fat realtor Susanna murmurously bemoans her fate: no children, a husband who left her. And when Helen's young daughter Christine arrives, announcing her imminent divorce, a new subject is up for group discussion. "Her daughters were so unhappy! Was it her fault, after all?" So wonders Anna—but the daughters are the least of her anxieties. She rakes over the past: her strict Mama, her marriage and life with demanding Ike on a failing ranch, her 20-year refusal to let Ike sleep with her (separate rooms, the connecting door tied shut with a stocking). She berates herself: "Why did she fail to rise to the occasion of this illness, every day? Why did she meet every demand with resentment and reluctance. . .?" And through the dead-of-night hours—the novel's best section—the aged couple sleeps hardly at all: Anna is on edge, especially after a weird phone call (her imagination?); Ike's bed is re-made again and again; she rebuffs his wanderings into her room; they bicker and snipe, with an explosion from Anna when Ike says her long-ago friend Elinor "looked like a piece of beef jerky." But the next day, before Ike dies, there'll be a tiny moment—Anna helping Ike in the bathroom—of new closeness: "For the first time in her life, they overlapped." And brand-new widow Anna finally looks ahead, having worked through the "rules" and "demands" of the past. Most of this is quietly splendid, with plainspoken details, a brooding sense of the house itself, and un-gussied-up dialogue. Unfortunately, however, as if afraid that readers will miss the point, Smiley indulges in flat, repetitious summaries of the feelings involved. And even more marring are the daughters' speechy debates—which escalate when Christine much too neatly (Death and Rebirth) discovers that she's pregnant . . and which often make this novel seem like an old-fashioned, contrived stage-play. Flawed work, then, but worthy, honest, and—at its best—wry and sternly moving.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 1981

ISBN: 0684852233

Page Count: 230

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1981

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Offill is good company for the end of the world.


An ever growing list of worries, from a brother with drug problems to a climate change apocalypse, dances through the lively mind of a university librarian.

In its clever and seductive replication of the inner monologue of a woman living in this particular moment in history, Offill’s (Dept. of Speculation, 2014, etc.) third novel might be thought of as a more laconic cousin of Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. Here, the mind we’re embedded in is that of a librarian named Lizzie—an entertaining vantage point despite her concerns big and small. There’s the lady with the bullhorn who won’t let her walk her sensitive young son into his school building. Her brother, who has finally gotten off drugs and has a new girlfriend but still requires her constant, almost hourly, support. Her mentor, Sylvia, a national expert on climate change, who is fed up with her fans and wants Lizzie to take over answering her mail. (“These people long for immortality, but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee,” says Sylvia.) “Malodorous,” “Defacing,” “Combative,” “Humming,” “Lonely”: These are just a few of the categories in a pamphlet called Dealing With Problem Patrons that Lizzie's been given at work, Also, her knee hurts, and she’s spending a fortune on car service because she fears she's Mr. Jimmy’s only customer. Then there are the complex mixed messages of a cable show she can't stop watching: Extreme Shopper. Her husband, Ben, a video game designer and a very kind man, is getting a bit exasperated. As the new president is elected and the climate change questions pour in and the doomsday scenarios pile up, Lizzie tries to hold it together. The tension between mundane daily concerns and looming apocalypse, the "weather" of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill's brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor.

Offill is good company for the end of the world.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-35110-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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