MYSTERIES OF WINTERTHURN

Another verbose quasi-period concoction from the alarmingly prolific Oates—with little of the wit and thematic edge that made A Bloodsmoor Romance a pointed (if labored) diversion. This time, supposedly, the detective-mystery form is being tackled, parodied, and Oates-ified; in fact, however, the three long episodes here are gothics, not mysteries, with little suspense and less detection; and, while the exaggerated, ornate narration in Bloodsmoor Romance suited the genre at hand, a similar style in these "Mysteries"—circa 1890-1910—seems arbitrary and anachronistic. In "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower," Abigail Whimbrel goes mad while visiting her cousin Georgina Kilgarvan, spinster-mistress of Glen Mawr manor: Abigail's baby is found dead, much of the corpse "eaten away." Other brutal deaths occur in the neighborhood. And while the local authorities blame this mayhem on rats or vagrants, Georgina's 16-year-old cousin Xavier Kilgarvan pokes around (think Hardy Boys, not Hercule Poirot)—helping to uncover a slew of standard family/sexual secrets while falling in breathy love with Georgina's young half-sister Perdita. In the second novella, "Devil's Half-Acre," super-handsome Xavier is now 28, a famous detective who returns to Winterthurn to investigate a series of molestation-murders—which have been blamed on a Jewish factory-manager (who is eventually lynched, thanks in part to a local Klan). So Xavier, drearily noble and faceless throughout, labors to pin the crime on the real aristocrat/culprit (obvious from the start)—but only succeeds in incriminating his own, disturbed brother. (His remorse ruins his renewed romance with Perdita.) And the third episode, "The Blood-stained Bridal Gown," takes place on the eve of WW I—with Perdita's husband the central victim in an adultery-murder: Xavier broods about collective guilt and such; he's depressed by his duels with an again-obvious villain; and there's a limply contrived happy ending—though Xavier gives up detection, which he finds too spiritually burdensome. Despite several pretentious authorial musings on "Mystery," however, there's no real illumination here of the primal forces at work in the detective genre. Instead, there's a replay of familiar Oates preoccupations—erotic repression, kinky fantasies, social hypocrisy—and familiar Oates mannerisms: italics, exclamation points, compulsive parentheses, rhetorical questions. And, though Oates devotees will find her arch, rococo style on lavish display, along with some inventive local details, anyone looking for period mystery—complete with socio-cultural resonances—will do far, far better with such genuine items as Juhan Symons' The Black-heath Poisonings (1979).

Pub Date: Jan. 25, 1983

ISBN: 0865381208

Page Count: 487

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1983

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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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THE VANISHING HALF

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.

THE RESCUE

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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