A sexy but self-conscious recreation of post–World War II European malaise.

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A MAN OF NO MOON

In postwar Italy, a renowned poet/translator with suicidal tendencies and an enormous sex drive enjoys a love triangle with two American actresses who happen to be sisters.

Loosely basing her fictional Dante Sabato on Cesare Pavese, whose love affair with an American expat actress ended shortly before his death, McPhee (No Ordinary Matter, 2004, etc.) creates a jaded, cynical romantic hero with mildly perverse sexual habits and enormous guilt. In 1948, Dante meets the Godfrey sisters, who have moved to Rome after faltering careers in Hollywood. Their names reflect their very different natures. Gladys has a sexual appetite as large and kinky as Dante’s, while Prudence offers intellect and love. Dante quickly beds Gladys, then works on wooing Prudence. Soon the three are ensconced in an unspoken ménage a trios. Dante engages in a publicly acknowledged love affair with Prudence while meeting his more carnal needs with Gladys, and every other woman who crosses his path. In between trysts and literary gatherings—there is much intellectual and cultural name-dropping of everyone from T.S. Eliot to Errol Flynn to Dante’s beloved, elusive Hemingway—Dante reviews his life with dissatisfaction. He feels guilty that as a young boy he hesitated before saving his neighbor from a beating. He blames the accidental, perhaps suicidal death of his first sweetheart, the lynchpin of a love triangle with his best friend, on his aloof reaction when she announced her pregnancy. He refuses to take credit for his resistance fighting against the fascists, portraying his heroism in the darkest possible light. Dante’s interval of joy with the Godfreys ends when Gladys becomes pregnant and marries an American she’s met on a movie set. The sisters return to America. Dante takes to the sea in a dinghy. By then, put off by his world-weary, self-centered voice as narrator, readers may be rooting for Dante’s suicide.

A sexy but self-conscious recreation of post–World War II European malaise.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-1-58243-375-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2007

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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