A gripping and sensitive portrait of ordinary people wrestling with ideological passions.




Homophobic politics meshes with a woman’s memory of the Holocaust in this debut novel dealing with moral panic.

In 2009, Ludka Zeilonka, an octogenarian art professor in Hampshire, Massachusetts, looks back on a past packed with tragedy and intrigue. As a Polish Roman Catholic in the anti-Nazi underground during World War II, she spirited Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto, one of whom, Izaak, became her husband. She’s still carrying a torch for her lost wartime lover Oskar and hiding a famous portrait of Chopin that she smuggled out of the country. A new season of persecution erupts around her when her gay grandson, Tommy, is fired from his high school teaching position for assigning gay-themed literature to his Advanced Placement English class. The action is part of a homophobic campaign ginned up by the fundamentalist Redeemer Fellowship Church and its studiedly avuncular pastor, Royce Leonard, along with his followers in the state legislature and on the school board. The furor embroils Tommy’s father, a powerful state senator estranged from his family by his relentless political calculations, and escalates as the teacher is savagely beaten and Ludka and Izaak face harassing phone calls and bricks through their windows. Meanwhile, Oskar’s grandson contacts Ludka, raising her hopes of a reunion but also threatening to expose her for art theft. The politics of Dempsey’s saga don’t ring very true: it’s hard to imagine anti-gay pogroms gaining traction in modern-day liberal Massachusetts, and the insistent comparison with the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto is heavy-handed. Fortunately, Dempsey treats the human dimension of her story with nuance and skill. She crafts complex, compelling characters on all sides, including a conservative talk radio host who supports Leonard’s campaign but is troubled by the ensuing violence and delves into the sense of grievance among Christians who feel oppressed by, well, having to read gay-themed literature. She grounds the narrative in evocative prose that conveys mood and psychology through realistic, precisely observed details—“She rose, took a healthy swallow of vodka to ballast herself, then tried to ignore the way the tumbler wobbled as she lowered it to the side table”—and makes a potentially melodramatic tale feel absorbing and real.

A gripping and sensitive portrait of ordinary people wrestling with ideological passions.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-63152-308-3

Page Count: 399

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2017

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.


When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.


In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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