Smiley, a gifted novelist of family-relations (Born Blind, At Paradise Gate), goes murkily astray this time—in a Manhattan murder-mystery that probes, with talky stiffness, the inter-relations among an unappealing group of old Minnesota college friends, now all early-30s New Yorkers. (Not unlike The Big Chill set-up, but without the charm.) Denny Minehart and Craig Shellady, brother-like leaders of a not-quite-famous rock band, are found dead in the apartment they've shared for years with Denny's longtime lover, boutique-manager Susan Gabriel. The shocked discoverer of the bodies: Susan's best friend Alice Ellis—librarian, ex-wife of poet/prof Jim, and the novel's moody heroine. Whodunit? Was it another band-member, druggie Noah Mast, whose wife was sleeping with the charismatic, volatile Craig? Did something go wrong with a cocaine-selling deal arranged by another old pal, homosexual sound-man Ray? Or was the killer one of the many other people who had keys to the Denny/Craig/Susan apartment? Alice, a quiet type uncomfortable at the center of the ensuing tensions, mulls these possibilities, raking over past relationships—often in numbing conversations with strong, glamorous Susan. ("Well, doesn't all of this seem weird to you? The patterns of our lives formed twelve years ago! And they didn't basically change until now!") Alice also finds time to fall in love—cute talk, earnest sex—with botanist/neighbor Henry, even if (for unconvincing reasons) she can't bear to tell him about the murders. But then, while Noah is indeed arrested, Alice suddenly, intuitively knows that Susan committed the murders. ("Nonetheless, Alice knew that her adoration of her friend, and her anticipation of lasting, comfortable intimacy was greater than ever.") So this disturbing knowledge will mess up the Henry relationship. . . until a longwinded finale (Susan stalks Alice, Susan confesses), paves the way for a tinny, happy fadeout. Smiley extracts a few shrewd effects from the quiet, naturalistic approach to violence and grief: there's ironic, credible emphasis on what everybody eats and wears. Her prose is often stylish, thoughtful. But, unlike Barn Blind and At Paradise Gate, this novel is layered with artificial situations and implausible motivations—from Alice's tortured friendships to Susan's much-belabored murder motive (which relates to the undeveloped theme of the rock band's non-celebrity). Moreover, Smiley doesn't seem to know this world first-hand: details and dialogue lack authentic edges. A blurry, ambitious cluster of themes, then, never coming into focus—or rising above the murder-melodrama format.

Pub Date: March 1, 1983

ISBN: 1400076021

Page Count: 355

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1983

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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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Well-written and insightful but so heartbreaking that it raises the question of what a reader is looking for in fiction.


A 12-year-old boy is the sole survivor of a plane crash—a study in before and after.

Edward Adler is moving to California with his adored older brother, Jordan, and their parents: Mom is a scriptwriter for television, Dad is a mathematician who is home schooling his sons. They will get no further than Colorado, where the plane goes down. Napolitano’s (A Good Hard Look, 2011, etc.) novel twins the narrative of the flight from takeoff to impact with the story of Edward’s life over the next six years. Taken in by his mother’s sister and her husband, a childless couple in New Jersey, Edward’s misery is constant and almost impermeable. Unable to bear sleeping in the never-used nursery his aunt and uncle have hastily appointed to serve as his bedroom, he ends up bunking next door, where there's a kid his age, a girl named Shay. This friendship becomes the single strand connecting him to the world of the living. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we meet all the doomed airplane passengers, explore their backstories, and learn about their hopes and plans, every single one of which is minutes from obliteration. For some readers, Napolitano’s premise will be too dark to bear, underlining our terrible vulnerability to random events and our inability to protect ourselves or our children from the worst-case scenario while also imagining in exhaustive detail the bleak experience of survival. The people around Edward have no idea how to deal with him; his aunt and uncle try their best to protect him from the horrors of his instant celebrity as Miracle Boy. As one might expect, there is a ray of light for Edward at the end of the tunnel, and for hardier readers this will make Napolitano’s novel a story of hope.

Well-written and insightful but so heartbreaking that it raises the question of what a reader is looking for in fiction.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-5478-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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