Giddy, intriguing stuff from a writer eager to let words misbehave.


A young woman becomes increasingly aware of authority—and the urge to push back against it—in this linguistically free-wheeling and challenging novel.

Ruocco doesn’t engage in wordplay so much as she performs a gut rehab on vocabulary, reshaping the meanings of words and testing new resonances within a familiar narrative structure. In broad outline, this is a coming-of-age story centered on Melba, who lives in the small town of the book’s title working as a clerk in a bakery. Over the course of the story, she ponders time’s passing and talks with various controlling figures in her life—her mother, a policeman, a doctor, her school principal, her landlord and so on. Melba asks questions; the responses she receives are generally encouragements to acquiesce. But that plot sketch doesn’t capture the surreal quality of Ruocco’s sentences. “He said you have a kind of bleak power over people, that you turn men into stalagmites, but you don’t stay with them for long,” Melba is told. “You break into a stream of bats and rush away.” Sensible? Not exactly. But the emotional pitch of the sentences is clear, and if the novel is occasionally opaque, Ruocco has given serious thought to how much she can do with language while still preserving a story’s integrity. Ruocco suggests that Melba is trying to bring wisdom to a community that resists it—in one moment, Melba imagines resting against a rock and, Prometheus-like, being pecked at by birds. If you’re willing to submit to their weirdness, Ruocco’s sentences send off sparks: “Have you ever discovered voles in your pillowcasings?” “It tasted like when, as a child, she had mashed anchovy in the wall socket and licked the wall socket on all fours.” Modernist-style experimentation ain’t dead yet.

Giddy, intriguing stuff from a writer eager to let words misbehave.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9897607-2-0

Page Count: 152

Publisher: Dorothy

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.


Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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