A plodding first novel, hollow at its center.

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HEAVEN LAKE

The education of a prig as an American in Taiwan evolves from self-righteous missionary to compassionate stand-in husband.

Meet Vincent Saunders, man on a mission. The 24-year-old Presbyterian from a small town in Illinois, fluent in Mandarin, is charged with establishing a ministry in Toulio, Taiwan. Free English lessons followed by Bible study: that’s the deal. The “Jesus teacher” immediately targets his landlady’s teenaged son but passes on his housemate, Alec from Scotland. Alec is Vincent’s antithesis, moody, profane and a serious hash smoker (when the drug makes him sick, Vincent wishes him a full measure of pain as a cure). But then lonely Vincent strays from the straight and narrow. Schoolgirl Trudy charms him with a fumbled kiss, and soon the two are making love five nights a week. Vincent’s missionary work falters. His commitment to Christ evaporates. But given that his whole life has been anchored by faith, it just isn’t credible that he could shuck it off like an old skin, without agonizing. Meanwhile, word of his trysts has reached Trudy’s brother, who beats Vincent to a pulp. He’ll have to leave town, but he can’t face the folks back home. Fortunately, there’s an alternative: Mr.Gwa, an affluent businessman, needs a foreigner for a sham marriage to a mainland beauty he wants brought to Taiwan; Vincent will get ten grand. Since Kai-ling lives in a desert town in China’s remote northwest, the story now turns into a travelogue, with Vincent the filter for impressions of China in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. His experiences induce the epiphany that “you could navigate your life without knowing,” just loving its mystery. Arriving in Urumchi, Vincent finds that Gwa’s desert rose has her own agenda, and attention shifts to her homely sister Jia-ling. Through the twists and turns of the novel’s final third, Vincent is all heart, looking out for the vulnerable Jia-ling and visiting Alec, now a convicted drug-smuggler, in prison.

A plodding first novel, hollow at its center.

Pub Date: April 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-7432-4634-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2004

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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