An often emotionally insightful portrait of family life.

GUARDIANS' BETRAYAL

WHAT HAPPENS SEVEN YEARS AFTER ADOPTION

In Van Zanten’s (On Thin Ice, 2012) novel, a family with adopted children faces issues that threaten to tear them apart.

Sisters Shayla, 10, and Abby, 6, are too young to remember why they were taken away from their mother, Nora. All they know is that, one day, their social worker, Bernice Harrison, chaperones them to Nora’s funeral and then adopts them. Years later, three members of the Harrison family grapple quietly with their problems: Shayla, now 17, develops a shoplifting habit, worries that her two best friends like each other more than they like her, and wonders if her crush, Eric, reciprocates her feelings. Then Shayla’s half sister, Anna Michaud, contacts her, offering to introduce her to her birth father, Gabriel, and Shayla is thrilled at the prospect. Meanwhile, Bernice’s husband, Tom, grows increasingly attracted to his 25-year-old receptionist, Marla, and begins an affair with her. Bernice, for her part, feels besieged on all fronts. She worries that Shayla’s biological father, a shiftless addict the last time she saw him, won’t be a good influence on the young woman. (She and Shayla have dramatic, dayslong fights on the matter.) She also feels increasingly distraught about her marriage, as Tom keeps “working late” and declines to have sex with her. As Bernice’s, Tom’s, and Shayla’s troubles deepen and harsh truths come to light, the family’s bonds are tested. Despite Bernice’s unique position as Shayla’s former social worker, the story’s central problems—teen angst, infidelity—are fairly quotidian. But that very normalcy makes Van Zanten’s story all the more engrossing, as the characters work through their turbulent feelings and find solutions through mature discussion. Along the way, the author sensitively renders their emotions: “she pushed away thoughts about those confusing times of long ago; a pervasive sense of weariness always surfaced.” However, the reasons why Marla is attracted to her middle-aged boss are never explained, and the way that Shayla talks can be distracting: “Omigod, this is so excellent; like, I will have my dad back!”

An often emotionally insightful portrait of family life.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2017

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 213

Publisher: Book Baby

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2017

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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

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A LITTLE LIFE

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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