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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Reader Votes

  • Readers Vote
  • 17

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2018

  • New York Times Bestseller

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

Did you like this book?

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Reader Votes

  • Readers Vote
  • 16

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

Did you like this book?

more