Capable social comedy laced with pitiless wit.

GOOD WOMEN

NOVELLAS

British novelist Stevenson (The Empress of the Last Days, 2004, etc.) returns to the novella form of her first book.

Three short fictions make up this new work, each focused on the shortcomings of its female central character, as ironically pointed out by the title. None of these heroines is conventionally good, although the first, Freda, is highly skilled in bed. Stevenson treats them all with a degree of disdain, differentiating their failings in stories distinguished by brisk narration, old-fashioned craft (and content), a dash of predictability and a cool attitude to all concerned. In each, the home symbolizes money, class and social striving, and is the setting for brooding mischief before an explosive finale. “Light My Fire” is narrated by architect David, whose all-consuming affair with Freda leads to marriage and the purchase of a ruined, 16th-century Scottish tower-house, the refurbishment and sale of which will fund the couple’s move to London. But the union splits apart with a bang after Freda commits an act of folly. “Walking With Angels” showcases another ruptured household, this time the less affluent home of Wenda and Derek. When Wenda starts to see angels—or are they hallucinations brought on by a mental disorder?—and wants to set up a New Age business to channel their positive energy, the dilemma of who holds the purse strings brings about a violent rearrangement. “Garden Guerrillas” sees a slight softening of attitude as Stevenson returns to the middle class, with widowed Alice rediscovering her decisiveness when resisting her son and pushy daughter-in-law’s attempts to oust her from the valuable family home and its beloved garden. Alice retaliates by planting invasive roses and bamboo supplied by an old flame.

Capable social comedy laced with pitiless wit.

Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2006

ISBN: 0-618-46217-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2005

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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