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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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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