A spicy stew of suburban discontent is diluted by the thinness of its characters.

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GOOD NEIGHBORS

An international adoption falters, splintering a coterie of rich suburban friends.

When a narrator begins with “We were modest. We were moneyed. We were all of us self-made and the most successful siblings of our respective families,” the reader knows there is trouble ahead. The storyteller is Nicole Westerhof, a married Boston suburbanite with two grade-school sons who’s on hiatus as a writer and riddled with insecurities. (First-time novelist Serling is a married mother of two in suburban New Jersey.) The prologue is called “What We Thought We Knew” and the epilogue, “What We Knew.” The space in between consists of a slow awakening to the folly of turning one’s clique of friends into a substitute family for “alleviating the boredom and the isolation of middle age.” The fault line appears in the second chapter, when Paige and Gene Edwards, the wealthiest among the group, announce they are adopting a preschooler from Russia. The brittle, imperious Paige and the less-distinctly drawn Gene return from Moscow with a girl they name Winifred Leigh Edwards, whose lazy eye is the first of a string of impairments. Nicole is smitten; Paige—thin, glamorous, and icy in her prematurely white hair—decidedly less so. The Edwards’ friends begin to glimpse cruelty, to suspect neglect and eventually “the black trickle of something dangerous.” Nicole is bracketed between her fierce preoccupation with Winnie and her efforts to keep a distance, via the phone, from an alcoholic sister back in Ohio. Serling, who favors sentence fragments, writes with verve and frequent insight: a happy memory “rising up like a swarm of mosquitoes. Almost painful.” But even as she ratchets the tension, her characters become increasingly hard to care about, particularly the husbands. This weakens the novel’s twist ending. Serling lands on a lethal climax among the privileged, in the vein of Big Little Lies.

A spicy stew of suburban discontent is diluted by the thinness of its characters.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4555-4191-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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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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