A BLOODSMOOR ROMANCE

Oates did her morbid, verbose thing with The Great American Family Saga in Bellefleur (1980). Now, with somewhat more control and a slightly lighter touch, she offers her parody/version of a 19th-century Popular Romance: ornately, breathily narrated by "a maiden lady of advanced years," this is the story of five Pennsylvania sisters, 1879-1899—but, predictably, the period conventions here are laced with spiritualism, perversion, feminism, and other Oatesian preoccupations. The tale begins, then, on the 1879 afternoon when Deirdre Zinn—adopted (and youngest) daughter of the Zinns of Bloodsmoor Valley—is abducted by a black-clad figure in a black balloon. And, while repeatedly bemoaning this scandale, the narrator slowly fills in the more conventional family portrait: the devoted Zinn parents, heiress Prudence and poor teacher/inventor John Quincy; level-headed daughter Constance Philippa, engaged to a Baron; sweet, pretty Octavia (the narrator's favorite); saucy Malvinia; tomboy/intellectual Samantha, who helps her father in his laboratory; plus—Great-Aunt Edwina, famed "authoress." Yet, as the book progresses, virtually everyone will turn out to be as unconventional as Deirdre. The fabled "passionate courtship" of the Zinn parents is revealed to have been the result of a misunderstanding. Constance Philippa disappears on her wedding night. . . to reappear years later as a transsexual. Octavia's supposedly Perfect Marriage leads to child-killings, fatal sado-masochism, and such. . . before she finds happiness by remarrying beneath her station. Malvinia runs off with an actor, becomes (to the narrator's horror) a stage-star, is forever haunted by "The Beast" of sensuality. (Among her bedmates: Mark Twain.) Samantha elopes too, with Papa's assistant. ("Ungrateful children! Shameless sinners!") And Deirdre, whose balloon-abduction was just part of her deep involvement with the Spirit World, becomes Madame Blavatsky's protege—a super-medium who scorns Marriage and is nearly wiped out when an exorcism goes awry. Through it all, of course, right up to an 1899 reunion (when the ho-hum secret of Deirdre's birth is revealed), the narrator upholds the Traditional Feminine Virtues while the characters usually find happiness by abandoning them: the anti-Victorian ironies are deafeningly unsubtle. And—at 640 pp.—the joke goes on far, far too long. But the mock-longwinded prose here is, as it happens, a good deal more readable than the earnest, pretentiously longwinded prose of recent Oates fiction; and readers with a taste for whimsical historical-novel sendups will find this mildly, thickly entertaining—certainly less lumbering than Erica Jong's Fanny, if far less pointed or vivid than Ray Russell's Pamela novels.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 1982

ISBN: 0446308250

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1982

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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