GUT SYMMETRIES

Always a narrative daredevil and linguistic voluptuary, Winterson (Art and Lies, 1995, etc.) sustains a level of writing here that's at once incantatory, discursive, and passionate: a breath-taking Joycean romp that explores the mysteries of love in a world freed from common sense by the wonders of modern math and physics. Winterson's story is, in part, about a love triangle. Two physicists meet on the QE2 en route to New York: He's an Italian- American from the Lower East Side whose mother made a fortune as an importer. Now a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, Giovanni Baptiste Rossetti (nicknamed ``Jove'') revels in his literary forerunners, from the mythic King of Gods to Mozart's seduced. His fantasies of primacy and potency express themselves in his affair with Alice (short for Alluvia) Fairfax, an English scientist on her way to the Institute—herself in the grip of a millennial fever, and willing to entertain the alchemical and religious dimensions of her work. But the neat symmetry of things is changed when Alice meets Stella, Jove's wife. Expecting a dumpy harridan, Alice discovers an elegant poet, with whom she begins an affair, much to Jove's dismay. The daughter of refugees from Nazi Germany, Stella balances her mother's practical nature with her Jewish father's visionary rantings. Indeed, the new physics comes to parallel the wisdom of the Jewish mystics, at least in Winterson's heady view. In a world of ``scraps,'' each lover seeks wholeness, whether in God or science. As improbable as the narrative connections become, they make perfect sense on the level that really matters here: Winterson's ``aerodynamics of risk.'' Winterson cleverly undercuts her highbrow riffing with puns, playlets, and poetry, reasserting in her art the most essential of points: ``Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.'' A major book, by any standard. (First printing of 40,000)

Pub Date: April 10, 1997

ISBN: 0-679-45475-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1997

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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