Thanks to a fairly conventional thriller format, Oates' newest attempt to make feverish myth out of supposed American prototypes is far more manageable—if no more successful—than the rambling excesses of Bellefleur: it's a Washington, D.C. retelling of Aeschylus' Oresteia which tries, vaguely, to hook up the themes of personal betrayal and revenge with the politics of treason and terrorism. Maurice Halleck, Director of the (imaginary) Federal Commission for the Ministry of Justice, is dead in an apparent car-crash suicide following a bribery scandal (connected to investigations into the Allende affair). But Maurice's high-strung teenage daughter Kirsten is convinced that her father was murdered—for domestic and perhaps political reasons—by chic mother Isabel and her lover Nicholas Martens, Maurie's old pal and colleague at the Commission. So, fixed on a double revenge-killing, Kirsten/Electra hysterically demands active support from low-key older brother Owen—an undergraduate who (in a totally implausible sequence) rinds his half-hearted commitment to matricide becoming politicized into manic revolutionary bloodlust, via seduction by an elegant, homosexual gum of international terrorism. ("Our acts are to confirm justice. . . . They will not be acts of personal vengeance—we've gone beyond that.") And meanwhile Oates provides flashback background on the Maurie/isabel/Nick triangle: young Nick saving schoolmate Maurie's life on a canoeing trip; the philosophical split between pragmatist Nick (handsome, popular) and idealist Maurie (monkey-faced, a loner); the routine guilts of the adultery and subsequent deceit. But the relationships and motivations remain unlifelike and murky—as does the significance of the political corruption (Nick's) which becomes entangled with personal betrayal. And the limp attempt to weight the Kirsten/Owen conspiracy with revolutionary politics (Oates makes them descendants of John Brown, quasi-terrorist hero) is merely longwinded, with pages of terrorism rhetoric and data. Finally, then, there's only the melodrama of the revenge—Kirsten seduces and nearly kills Nick, Owen kills Isabel ("Bitch. Cunt. Murderer. Mother") and others, kamikaze-style—followed by the clearing of Maurie's name by a transformed, reclusive Nick. True, Oates' prose, though slack and repetitive, is generally readable this time around. And occasional glimmers of issues worth exploring ("What a person is in secret, he becomes—in politics") do surface. But once again it seems as if Oates catches a glimpse of a thematic construct, then throws words at it from all directions—with blurry, inflated, and uninvolving results.

Pub Date: Aug. 17, 1981

ISBN: 0517421852

Page Count: -

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1981

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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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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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