A bad idea, poorly executed. Where will Oates take us next? One wonders, and fears.

MY SISTER, MY LOVE

THE INTIMATE STORY OF SKYLER RAMPIKE

Oates’s 35th novel, which follows last year’s flawed but interesting The Gravedigger’s Daughter, is another bloated roman a cléf.

The subject is a notorious recent child murder, and, despite a firm prefatory disclaimer, there’s no doubt that this novel’s young victim was inspired, if that’s the right word, by the frail figure of serial beauty contest winner JonBenét Ramsey. The book is framed as a narrative written by the late Bliss (born Edna Louise) Rampike’s older brother Skyler, in hopes of exorcising conflicted feelings about his celebrity sibling: a precociously gifted figure skater whose bludgeoned body was found in the furnace room of their lavish New Jersey home, when Bliss was six and Skyler nine years old. Skyler’s story is composed ten years after Bliss’s death, a decade in which he had also endured the bitter collapse of his parents’ storybook marriage, another traumatic death and widespread suspicion that he was his sister’s killer. The pages mount up relentlessly. Oates satirizes the inordinate ambitions of Bliss’s nutcase parents (father Bix is a preening skirt chaser and domestic tyrant and “Mummy” Betsey is histrionically determined to transform, first unwilling and inept Skyler, subsequently docile Edna Louise, into the champion skater Betsey never became); and she breaks the back of the narrative with Skyler’s lachrymose “Teen Memory of a Lost Love,” a chronicle of Skyler's botched attempt to be a “normal” high school kid. The novel does generate power from its dogged repetitive emphasis on the wretched spectacle of innocent children malformed and victimized by their foolish parents. And Oates does manage a stunningly ironic cliffhanger ending. But the novel’s excesses consume it. Years ago, Oates admitted to a “laughably Balzacian” ambition to get the whole world into a book. But comparisons to Balzac grow ever fainter with every opus horribilis like Blonde and My Sister, My Love. More likely, this author is in danger of becoming a 21st-century Upton Sinclair.

A bad idea, poorly executed. Where will Oates take us next? One wonders, and fears.

Pub Date: June 24, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-06-154748-5

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2008

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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