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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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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