A couple of touching moments toward the end can’t redeem this surprising misstep from one of our most gifted novelists.

TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS

Smiley, who won a Pulitzer for transplanting King Lear to 1970s Iowa (A Thousand Acres, 1991), sets her modern-day version of The Decameron in Hollywood. And it’s no prize-winner.

Her characters are not drawn together by a disaster as directly threatening as the Black Death, though the recently launched invasion of Iraq inspires nearly as much dread in one of them. Self-help author Elena can’t help brooding about the war, even as she lies in bed kissing her lover, slightly-past-his-prime film director Max. It’s March 24, 2003, the morning after the Oscars, and Max’s house is filled with guests: insecure Stoney, who inherited the job of Max’s agent from his more dynamic father; belligerently patriotic Charlie, Max’s childhood friend; Delphine, who’s still living in Max’s guest house years after his divorce from her daughter, gorgeous movie star Zoe; Delphine’s best friend Cassie; Max and Zoe’s daughter Isabel; and Elena’s feckless son Simon. In wander Zoe and her new lover Paul, a New Age-y healer, and the stage is set for ten days of storytelling à la Boccaccio. Unsurprisingly, many of the tales involve movies and moviemaking, though Smiley nods to her source material a few times (e.g., a notorious sinner declared a saint after a mendacious deathbed confession). If only her narrative were as lively as the bawdy Decameron: There’s plenty of sex, but most of it is clinical rather than erotic, and the erectile difficulties of middle-aged men don’t make for very arousing reading either. The parade of stories has no evident thematic unity, and the characters are frequently irritating. Even those who agree with Elena’s feelings about Iraq may grow tired of her harping on the subject, and Isabel’s perennially aggrieved stance toward her mother hardly seems justified by Zoe’s mildly diva-esque behavior. A change of venue to a lavish mansion owned by a mysterious Russian who wants Max to direct a remake of Taras Bulba helps not at all.

A couple of touching moments toward the end can’t redeem this surprising misstep from one of our most gifted novelists.

Pub Date: Feb. 15, 2007

ISBN: 1-4000-4061-2

Page Count: 488

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2006

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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Heartfelt and funny, this enemies-to-lovers romance shows that the best things in life are all-inclusive and nontransferable...

THE UNHONEYMOONERS

An unlucky woman finally gets lucky in love on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii.

From getting her hand stuck in a claw machine at age 6 to losing her job, Olive Torres has never felt that luck was on her side. But her fortune changes when she scores a free vacation after her identical twin sister and new brother-in-law get food poisoning at their wedding buffet and are too sick to go on their honeymoon. The only catch is that she’ll have to share the honeymoon suite with her least favorite person—Ethan Thomas, the brother of the groom. To make matters worse, Olive’s new boss and Ethan’s ex-girlfriend show up in Hawaii, forcing them both to pretend to be newlyweds so they don’t blow their cover, as their all-inclusive vacation package is nontransferable and in her sister’s name. Plus, Ethan really wants to save face in front of his ex. The story is told almost exclusively from Olive’s point of view, filtering all communication through her cynical lens until Ethan can win her over (and finally have his say in the epilogue). To get to the happily-ever-after, Ethan doesn’t have to prove to Olive that he can be a better man, only that he was never the jerk she thought he was—for instance, when she thought he was judging her for eating cheese curds, maybe he was actually thinking of asking her out. Blending witty banter with healthy adult communication, the fake newlyweds have real chemistry as they talk it out over snorkeling trips, couples massages, and a few too many tropical drinks to get to the truth—that they’re crazy about each other.

Heartfelt and funny, this enemies-to-lovers romance shows that the best things in life are all-inclusive and nontransferable as well as free.

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-2803-5

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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