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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Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of...


Lifelong, conflicted friendship of two women is the premise of Hannah’s maudlin latest (Magic Hour, 2006, etc.), again set in Washington State.

Tallulah “Tully” Hart, father unknown, is the daughter of a hippie, Cloud, who makes only intermittent appearances in her life. Tully takes refuge with the family of her “best friend forever,” Kate Mularkey, who compares herself unfavorably with Tully, in regards to looks and charisma. In college, “TullyandKate” pledge the same sorority and major in communications. Tully has a life goal for them both: They will become network TV anchorwomen. Tully lands an internship at KCPO-TV in Seattle and finagles a producing job for Kate. Kate no longer wishes to follow Tully into broadcasting and is more drawn to fiction writing, but she hesitates to tell her overbearing friend. Meanwhile a love triangle blooms at KCPO: Hard-bitten, irresistibly handsome, former war correspondent Johnny is clearly smitten with Tully. Expecting rejection, Kate keeps her infatuation with Johnny secret. When Tully lands a reporting job with a Today-like show, her career shifts into hyperdrive. Johnny and Kate had started an affair once Tully moved to Manhattan, and when Kate gets pregnant with daughter Marah, they marry. Kate is content as a stay-at-home mom, but frets about being Johnny’s second choice and about her unrealized writing ambitions. Tully becomes Seattle’s answer to Oprah. She hires Johnny, which spells riches for him and Kate. But Kate’s buttons are fully depressed by pitched battles over slutwear and curfews with teenaged Marah, who idolizes her godmother Tully. In an improbable twist, Tully invites Kate and Marah to resolve their differences on her show, only to blindside Kate by accusing her, on live TV, of overprotecting Marah. The BFFs are sundered. Tully’s latest attempt to salvage Cloud fails: The incorrigible, now geriatric hippie absconds once more. Just as Kate develops a spine, she’s given some devastating news. Will the friends reconcile before it’s too late?

Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of poignancy.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-312-36408-3

Page Count: 496

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2007

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