A potentially interesting story sabotaged by lack of discipline.

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A GLASS OF WATER

Mexican-American brothers struggle against prejudice and adversity in this first novel from poet/memoirist Baca (The Importance of a Piece of Paper, 2004, etc.).

After their father Casimiro is felled by stroke in 2003, Lorenzo takes over the land Casimiro worked for its owner, Miller. Younger brother Vito, forced to leave the farm after beating up Miller’s son for disparaging a Mexican woman, dons boxing gloves and becomes a championship fighter. Unbeknownst to Miller, Lorenzo grows more than chili peppers; his marijuana crop generates plenty of surplus cash, which he uses to improve conditions for the area’s immigrant field workers. He falls for Carmen, a graduate student writing her thesis on the migrants, but is caught between the way of life made possible by his illicit trade and Carmen’s insistence that they join with the workers to agitate for improved conditions. Meanwhile, Vito becomes a hero to the Chicano field hands by equating his fights with the struggle against Anglo injustice and oppression. The narrative skips back and forth in chronology, always circling around the murder of their mother Nopal when Lorenzo was five. We learn that 15-year-old Nopal fled Mexico for America in 1983, fought off a rapist, was rescued by Casimiro, had a singing career that led to her death; ethereal italicized passages suggest that her spirit still follows her sons. All lines eventually converge in a questionably executed and predictable dénouement that would work better with fuller character development. Baca’s impulse to poetic reverie sacrifices clarity and accessibility for surreal, excessive description. Conversely, lack of specificity keeps the material about the plight of immigrant workers at the level of vague archetypes. The betrayal of one brother by the other, the fight in which their bid for land ownership is at stake, as well as the unlikely discovery of their mother’s murderer are all rushed through in prose that never earns believability, empathy or a hold on the reader’s attention.

A potentially interesting story sabotaged by lack of discipline.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1922-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2009

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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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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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