Characteristically strident and forced—and it’s a real shame. This could have been one of Oates’s better books.



Oates’s billionth is a brooding analysis of racial relations and white liberal guilt, which partially echoes her eerie novella Beasts (2001) and earlier major novel Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

It’s a fragmented “text without a title,” composed in retrospect by Generva “Genna” Meade, recalling her undergraduate years at prestigious Schuyler College, founded by a member of the truculently progressive Meade family. Genna’s story details her unequal relationship, in the mid-1970s, with her standoffish black roommate Minette Swift, daughter of a Washington, D.C., minister, and a scholarship student who’s defiantly not grateful for the “favor” white society has bestowed on her, and the college’s endless tolerance of her academic failures. Genna’s awkward efforts to bond with Minette are rudely rebuffed, as is her dismay and shock when ugly racially based insults rain down on her roommate. Genna’s distracted urge to do what’s right is also tested by her relationship with her counterculture-vulture parents: unstable pill-popping mom Veronica, and her father “Mad Max,” a left-wing attorney notorious for supporting and funding protest demonstrations and suspected of complicity in a terrorist bombing that left a black security guard dead. In other words, the deck is tightly stacked. And Oates misses no opportunities to underscore and overstate her characters’ ingrained attitudes (Max’s abrasiveness, Minette’s sullen religiosity), runaway emotional states (notably Veronica’s) and utter incompatibility. There is some power in Genna’s desperate wish to identify with Minette, and thus prove to herself her own liberal goodness—and in the tragic outcome of the white girl’s insistent intimacy with the black girl. But Oates shifts the narrative abruptly in the closing pages, revealing the real “text” Genna has been writing, and the bitter small victory she wrests from it. It’s jarring.

Characteristically strident and forced—and it’s a real shame. This could have been one of Oates’s better books.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-112564-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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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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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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