Oates at her most restrained and hence best. This one almost makes up for the ludicrous overkill of My Sister, My Love...



A patient act of seduction has curiously appropriate mythic resonance in this brisk novella.

It’s a “fairy tale,” explicitly linked to the anonymous “Ballad of Barbara Allen” (excerpts from which are quoted in the text) about a cruel young beauty and the boy who died for love of her. But Oates (Wild Nights!, 2008, etc.) considerably alters those details in the story of 16-year-old Katya Spivak’s summer of employment as nanny to the young children of a wealthy couple who vacation in the posh New Jersey seaside town of Bayhead Harbor. This haven lies far from Vineland, the grimy inland hamlet where Katya’s broken and wasted family members are “scattered like sea creatures washed ashore in the wake of a terrible storm.” Marcus Kidder, an elegant, handsome older man, approaches Katya and politely courts her, gradually emphasizing his intuition that they are “soul mates.” She finds herself dreamily visiting his lavish home, first rejecting then luxuriating in his attentions, gradually edging away from the worlds she knows and fears to enter Mr. Kidder’s artfully woven web. This being Oates, there’s a considerable amount of melodrama and violence, mostly initiated by Katya’s drunken slut of a mother, and her thuggish cousin Roy. But this brief tale, oddly reminiscent here and there of Edith Wharton’s classic short novel Summer, is expertly paced and suffused, not only with the usual hasty and lax prose, but also with sharp suggestive images: e.g., Kidder’s limousine, always waiting for Katya, slinks along “silent and smooth-gliding as an undersea predator.” Furthermore, the sinister, charming, “artistic” Mr. Kidder, a king of sorts among men, emerges quite convincingly as both more and less than he appears to be.

Oates at her most restrained and hence best. This one almost makes up for the ludicrous overkill of My Sister, My Love (2008). Almost.

Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-15-101516-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Otto Penzler/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2009

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.


A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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