A CERTAIN SMILE

A Summertime-like romance between older lovers, set in modern-day China, from perennial bestseller Michael (Acts of Love, 1997, etc.). Novice designer Miranda Graham, 40, has come to Beijing from Boulder, Colorado, to discuss the production of her cashmere clothing with Chinese manufacturers. As she waits for a cab in the shoving airport crowd, she’s rescued by Yuan Li, 55, the head of an important construction company who has come to see off a friend. Overcoming Miranda’s reserve (and honoring the venerable tradition of overseas romances doubling as travelogues), half-American Li spends a week showing her around Beijing, introducing Miranda (and the reader) to contemporary Chinese life and a mouthwatering feast of its cuisine. The two draw closer, cook a meal together at Li’s courtyard house in Beijing, and finally consummate their love at a hotel in Xi’an, where they have gone to see the 6,000 terra-cotta warriors built for the tomb of the first Emperor. But the villainous Chinese state security bureau complicates their wonderful relationship. It views Miranda as a courier of ’subversive— literature because she agreed to deliver a letter to the parents of a Boulder acquaintance, and her lover is under suspicion as a result of their affair. Used to such scrutiny, Li carries on as if it were not there. But Miranda decides she can—t live in such a society, and Li decides he can—t go to America. Instead of continuing an enriching international relationship, which would not be too difficult since Miranda begins a partnership with an older Chinese designer, the pair decide to part forever, keeping their memories and that “certain smile” of perfect love. Besides the excellent food, the authors create believable conversations between intelligent people, a rarity in romance fiction. But after a humdinger of a first half, the ending seems forced. (Doubleday Book Club main selection; Literary Guild selection; ad/promo)

Pub Date: May 5, 1999

ISBN: 0-517-70325-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1999

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A clever and current book about a complicated woman and her romantic relationships.

CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS

The story of the entangled affairs of a group of exceedingly smart and self-possessed creative types.

Frances, an aloof and intelligent 21-year-old living in Dublin, is an aspiring poet and communist. She performs her spoken-word pieces with her best friend and ex-lover, Bobbi, who is equally intellectual but gregarious where Frances is shy and composed where Frances is awkward. When Melissa, a notable writer and photographer, approaches the pair to offer to do a profile of them, they accept excitedly. While Bobbi is taken with Melissa, Frances becomes infatuated by her life—her success, her beautiful home, her actor husband, Nick. Nick is handsome and mysterious and, it turns out, returns Frances’ attraction. Although he can sometimes be withholding of his affection (he struggles with depression), they begin a passionate affair. Frances and Nick’s relationship makes difficult the already tense (for its intensity) relationship between Frances and Bobbi. In the midst of this complicated dynamic, Frances is also managing endometriosis and neglectful parents—an abusive, alcoholic father and complicit mother. As a narrator, Frances describes all these complex fragments in an ethereal and thoughtful but self-loathing way. Rooney captures the mood and voice of contemporary women and their interpersonal connections and concerns without being remotely predictable. In her debut novel, she deftly illustrates psychology’s first lesson: that everyone is doomed to repeat their patterns.

A clever and current book about a complicated woman and her romantic relationships.

Pub Date: July 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-451-49905-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2017

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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

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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