BECH IS BACK

A NOVEL

Updike grows steadily more dazzling. After all, how many other contemporary novelists have had the artistic suppleness to launch two such different series of character-based books and allow them to do so much? (If Rabbit is a tennis-shoed archbishop of the American middle, Bech is Updike's pulchinello, his writer-as-sad-clown, a Mosaic itinerant.) Yet both characters feed off the same basic freedom: not failure exactly, but resonated disappointment. Henry Bech, you'll remember, is Updike's prototypical writer: New-York-Jewish, naturally—and a big splash that's now dried-out. (He's the winner of the Melville Award, "awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence.") So, stalled on his work-in-progress, Think Big, Bech scrambles. Signing limited-edition reprint pages of an earlier novel, each scrawl worth a buck-and-a-half and a free vacation in the Caribbean, he enters the nightmare of having his very name dismantle under his hand. When he travels on State Department tours to the Third World, his alkaline talks and the student demonstrations against him lead him to be "sorry he had ever said anything, on anything, ever. He had meddled with the mystery of creation. There was in the world a pain concerning which God has set an example of pure and absolute silence." He marries his WASP lover Bea, who gets him to move up to Westchester, to travel to Israel (where, to great comic effect, she's more enthusiastic than he is) and to Scotland (where Updike indulges in piquant travel-writing with sparkling economy). And they finally settle in, in Ossining-where the goyim terrify Bech as exotics, "so brittle and pale and complacently situated amid their pools and dogwoods and the old Dutch masonry of their retaining walls, that he felt like a spy among them and, when not a silent spy, a too-vigorous, curly-haired showoff." At last, then, Bech writes: he finishes Think Big (which seems wonderful/dreadful in Updike's clever outline), earns a bundle, winds up as just another celebrity . . . and ultimately abandons the let-down Bea. ("I just thought . . . your living here so long with me, with us, something nice would get into your book. But those people are so vicious, Henry. There's no love making them tick, just ego and greed. Is that how you see us? I mean us, people?") Schlemeil humor at its ventriloquistic best, fine travel observations, literary acid—all splendid. But Updike's newest Bech-book moves past the satiric pinpricks of the first volume and into a personification of moral compromise—sure to make any writer squirm in recognition, sure to reward any reader. Like a delicious sundae that turns out to be whipped up out of vitamins and minerals: brilliant fiction, great fun.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 1982

ISBN: 0449004538

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1982

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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