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

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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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A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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