UNHOLY LOVES

Oates has done time in academia, and the best part of this erratic novel—set among literary faculty at an upstate N.Y. college—are her descriptions, verging on dark farce, of professorial vanities, rivalries, insecurities, and petty tactics: much of the book involves a handful of faculty parties, and Oates efficiently captures the spilled drinks, bored wives, snide put-downs, labored jokes, oblique namecallings, faux pas, and hurt egos that characterize such sloshy gatherings. (At the first party, there's a ghastly moment when the guest of-honor—a great, aged, failing English poet—vomits at the climax of a vain young composer's eager-to-please performance at the piano.) And at least one of the strutting literati here—a self-important prof having an affair with a young teacher's insomniac wife (she's out to save her husband's job)-takes on a real tragicomic pathos in his desperately fawning attempt to win over the visiting poet, who'd rather chat with the folks at the public library. But Oates wants more from her cast than dark irony (which reaches its peak when the old poet bums to death after fiercely shooing the tireless sycophant out of his bedroom); she wants, as usual, fear and trembling. And the attempts here at tortured, soulful characterization are less successful: many of the players have fitful stream-of-consciousness moments, but it is 38-year-old novelist/teacher Brigit Stott, a vaguely autobiographical figure, who carries the emotional weight—in memories of her brutal former marriage, in her half-thwarted attachment to the old poet ("He would be one of her holy loves. She has had holy loves and unholy loves"), in her recurrent fear of being suicide-prone, and in her unconvincing affair with that vain young composer, a preening bisexual. With Brigit, who is made to reach some sort of unwarranted epiphany, Oates turns on her familiar tortured-soul prose ("Her stomach was bloated, hard, her brain was emptied of blood. . ."); but the character remains sketchy and out of place, like a study for some other, more focused novel. A mixed bag of Oates, then—insightful and sharp when it's content to view the academics with a satiric curl of the lip, but characteristically morbid-shallow when trying to reach into their very souls.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0449244571

Page Count: 317

Publisher: Vanguard

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1979

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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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