THE GIRL FROM PARIS

The girl from Paris is Ellen Paget, who starts out in 1860 as the girl from Brussels: though English-born, 21-year-old Ellen has spent the past few years as a student and then a teacher at the exclusive Pensionnat girls' school. Now, however, the school's directress has become disenchanted with lovely semi-aristocrat Ellen (who's winning the excessive devotion of the school's resident philosopher/professor). So Ellen's godmother whisks her off to Paris—where she's to become governess in the home of the young Comte de la Ferte. But the Comte's is a strange menage, to put it mildly: the Comtesse ignores her husband, doting instead on her live-in Sapphic companion, earthy novelist Germaine de Rhetoree; the Comtesse shines in her literary salon (cameos by Flaubert et al.), while her husband entertains the mindless, chichi crowd in his gaming rooms; their little daughter is hyperactive and understandably unstable. And the household tensions—the Comte is pressuring his wife about producing a son—will lead to a tragic suicide/murder, with poor Ellen somewhat tainted by the scandal. At that point, then, the scene switches entirely over to Britain—as Ellen goes home to her own family complications at the Paget manse ("the Hermitage") in England. Old, bitter father Luke, whose second wife has recently been killed in an accident, is in danger of being taken over by a fortune-hunting housekeeper. Ellen's younger brother Gerard, a gifted musician who prefers the company of shepherds, is being pushed into law. Little half-sister Vicky is being neglected. Stepbrother Benedict is waspishly argumentative. And, finally, when Luke does indeed seem to be bequeathing his fortune to the shady housekeeper, Ellen's sisters abduct the old man—so Ellen, with help from Benedict (love blooms), must rescue her mad, foul father . . . for the sake of her dead, beloved mother. Aiken's plotting this time around is awfully choppy: the France/England halves of the book hardly connect; the Gerard subplot (which ends violently) is drastically underdeveloped; and the delicious light touch of The Smile of the Stranger is nearly nonexistent here. Nonetheless, her no-nonsense tone and offbeat panache move the fragmented episodes along quite spiffily—and the many Aiken fans will find this a lively smorgasbord of un-frilly period entanglements, with some quasi-feminist resonances.

Pub Date: June 1, 1982

ISBN: 0385179790

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1982

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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