BELLEFLEUR

American family saga, Oates style—which means a dark household full of lust, obsessions, visions, ghosts, murders, disappearances, grotesques, mystical animals, religious conversions. . . and page after page of roiling, lazily ornate Oates prose. The book is made of 80 short, titled, often disconnected chapters—some episodes from the lives of distant Bellefleur ancestors (pioneer Jedediah wandering the hills in feverish search of God, great-great-grandfather Raphael insisting that his posthumous skin be made into a drum), but mostly tales of the vaguely 20th-century Bellefleurs on their lakeside estate in the Adirondacks-like mountains. Throughout, the wandering focus settles most often on Leah B., who has strange "powers" that seem forever frustrated: when she married handsome cousin Gideon, he squashed her pet spider named "Love"; Gideon has proven to be an insatiable philanderer (impregnating an underage local wench); so now Leah, mother of twins, burns with desire for another child—and indeed she becomes colossally pregnant (eating raw beefsteak) and gives birth to a girl baby who unfortunately has the lower half of a boy baby growing out of her abdomen. (Grandmother Della chops away the excess: "now it's a she and not a he. I've had enough of he. . .") Baby Germaine then becomes Leah's mystical guide, inspiring her to rebuild the crumbled Bellefleur empire and also secure a pardon for great-uncle Jean-Pierre II, who's been locked up for decades as a supposed mass murderer (eventually released, the old man will later massacre some Bellefleur enemies). And, while Leah pursues her obsession, a dozen other family members more or less succumb to the Bellefleur curse: a legendary vulture swoops down and kills Gideon's illegitimate baby; Gideon's poet brother Vernon ("my essence is Vernon and not Bellefleur, I belong to God, I am God") is drowned by anti-Bellefleur townies; brother Ewan gets religion; niece Yolande is raped, then avenged; nephew Raphael disappears (he's become obsessed with voices calling to him from a pond). There are recurring motifs (revenge, sin, God, modes of transport), a stream of surreal creatures (a knowing dwarf, powerful cats and dogs, rats all through the mansion, a black bear who married a 19th-century Bellefleur), and an apocalyptic finale—in which Gideon, still philandering but sick of the struggle with Leah over Germaine, flies his plane into Bellefleur Manor, kamikaze-style. But for all the connections and weavings and trappings of myth/epic, this massive novel never seems more than a grab-bag of familiar Oates preoccupations and turns of mind—the best of which turn up in a few of the entirely self-contained early-Bellefleur tales (like "The Clavichord"). And even the intermittent impacts here are diluted by Oates' overheated, increasingly undisciplined, often downright slovenly prose: parentheses within parentheses, indiscriminate italics and exclamation points, obvious ideas belabored and decorated, baroque devices unsupported by intellectual vigor or verbal panache. As always, some moody and grimly ghoulish leaps of imagination—but, overall, a great pudding of a book lacking in shape, flavor, and substance.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 1980

ISBN: 0452267943

Page Count: 596

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1980

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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