Sharply observed but perhaps a bit too sprawling, Foer's novel bites off more than it can chew.

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HERE I AM

Foer’s (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005, etc.) first novel in 11 years aspires to be a contemporary Jewish epic.

The book is not unlike a Jonathan Franzen novel crossed with one by Philip Roth. Like Franzen, Foer details the disintegration of an American family against the backdrop of a larger social breakdown—a 7.6 earthquake, epicentered beneath the Dead Sea, that devastates both Israel and the Middle East. Like Roth, he investigates a basic question: what does it mean to be a Jew? That all of this is more complicated than it appears is the point of the sprawling novel, which showcases Foer’s emotional dexterity even as it takes place across a wider canvas than his previous books. Beginning just before the bar mitzvah of Sam Bloch, a precocious if disconnected 13-year-old, Foer traces a well of family trouble (dying elders, dying pets, the relentless testing of all boundaries), culminating in the separation of Sam’s parents, Jacob and Julia. Jacob is a TV writer and Julia is an architect, and their relationship has withered beneath the onslaught of their responsibilities. “She needed a day off,” Foer writes of Julia. “She would have loved the feeling of not knowing how to fill the time, of wandering without a destination in Rock Creek Park, of actually savoring a meal of the kind of food that her kids would never tolerate.” This is great stuff, written with the insight of someone who has navigated the crucible of family, who understands how small slights lead to crises, the irreconcilability of love. Where the novel runs into trouble, however, is in widening its lens to the geopolitical after the earthquake, as the Arab states unite against Israel and the Israeli prime minister calls on all Jewish men to come home. It’s not that the conflict isn’t potent or that Foer doesn’t understand its awful ironies; “There was absolutely nothing,” he observes about the Iranian ayatollah, “to distinguish his face from that of a Jew.” Still the tension is diffused by two concluding sections that take place well after the main part of the action, undermining the sense of impending apocalypse on which the novel relies. In the end, we are left to wonder what the stakes are—or more accurately, where the real connections reside. “What would it sound like to cry in Jewish?” asks the rabbi at Jacob’s grandfather’s funeral. The answer—“Maybe like laughing”—is both fulfilling and unfulfilling, much like this ambitious, if not entirely satisfying, book.

Sharply observed but perhaps a bit too sprawling, Foer's novel bites off more than it can chew.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-374-28002-4

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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