A book that has obviously been labored over, yet still feels inchoate and unfocused.

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A FREE LIFE

A Chinese immigrant family’s experience of 1990s America is treated at epic length in this heartfelt new novel from the NBA-winning author of Waiting (1999).

Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Nan Wu, seeking a better life for his wife Pingping and their son Taotao, precedes them to America, where he briefly studies political science before realizing he must abandon his ambition of living as a poet and novelist and provide for his family—who join him four years later as live-in household staff for a wealthy woman residing in the Boston area. Over the next decade, Nan moves in and out of U.S. literary circles (encountering, among others, Allen Ginsberg–like confrontational poet Sam Fisher), but finds neither satisfactory outlets for his creative energies nor relief from longing for the woman he didn’t marry—all the while subsisting in a companionable, though not loving marriage, and enduring the trials of fatherhood, as Taotao struggles through assimilation and adolescence. The family moves to an Atlanta suburb, operating then purchasing a thriving restaurant, and appear, at last, “Americanized.” But Nan’s conflicted relationships with fellow Chinese-Americans who profess a love for their homeland that he cannot share erodes his energies and keeps him suspended between freedom and tyranny, the workaday world and the ideal realm of literature. The author’s trademark clarity produces numerous lucid, moving scenes, and the gathering weight of the struggles endured by the Wus seizes the reader’s attention. But the book’s amplitude is unselective. When it ends with extracts from Nan’s “Poetry Journals” and 30-plus pages of his deeply autobiographical poems (a blatant echo of Doctor Zhivago, one of Nan’s favorite books), we realize that these concluding pages tell his story far more succinctly than do the bloated 600 pages that precede it.

A book that has obviously been labored over, yet still feels inchoate and unfocused.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-375-42465-6

Page Count: 672

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2007

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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MY DARK VANESSA

The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled...

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

A riveting, potentially redemptive story of modern American suburbia that reads almost like an ancient Greek tragedy.

When the Whitmans, a nouveau riche white family, move into a sprawling, newly built house next door to Valerie Alston-Holt, a black professor of forestry and ecology, and her musically gifted, biracial 18-year-old son, Xavier, in a modest, diverse North Carolina neighborhood of cozy ranch houses on wooded lots, it is clear from the outset things will not end well. The neighborhood itself, which serves as the novel’s narrator and chorus, tells us so. The story begins on “a Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them,” we are informed in the book’s opening paragraph. “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” The exact nature of the tragedy that has been foretold and questions of blame come into focus gradually as a series of events is set inexorably in motion when the Whitmans’ cloistered 17-year-old daughter, Juniper, encounters Xavier. The two teenagers tumble into a furtive, pure-hearted romance even as Xavier’s mom and Juniper’s stepfather, Brad, a slick operator who runs a successful HVAC business and has secrets of his own, lock horns in a legal battle over a dying tree. As the novel builds toward its devastating climax, it nimbly negotiates issues of race and racism, class and gentrification, sex and sexual violence, environmental destruction and other highly charged topics. Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018, etc.) empathetically conjures nuanced characters we won’t soon forget, expertly weaves together their stories, and imbues the plot with a sense of inevitability and urgency. In the end, she offers an opportunity for catharsis as well as a heartfelt, hopeful call to action.

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled times.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-23727-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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