An odd combination of vehement message and purposely ambiguous characters: admirable but not entirely enjoyable.

EARLY LEAVING

Second-novelist Goldman (The Slow Way Back, not reviewed) adds to the mini-genre of “Where did I go wrong as a mother?”

Eighteen-year-old Early (Earl) Smallwood, a popular honors student whose parents are members of the upper-middle-class white liberal establishment of Charlotte, South Carolina, has admitted killing a black teenager and setting his car on fire to hide the evidence. Awaiting Early’s sentencing, his mother Kathryne reconsiders their family’s history to understand how her darling boy could have committed such a heinous act. Simpering, superficial, and overindulgent Kathryne is not the most trustworthy narrator, and Smallwood’s skill at making her realistically unlikable slips into overkill early on. From the day of Early’s birth, Kathryne works to keep her son’s life as easy as possible, just as her annoyingly sweet mother did for her. Kathryne takes umbrage at her husband Peter’s tougher approach to child-rearing, and, although the disagreements often seem piddling, by the time Early reaches adolescence, the stress within the marriage has driven Peter into an affair. As Peter and Kathryne try to repair their marriage, Early falls increasingly under the sway of his best friend Chip. Is Chip a bad influence? Is Kathryne blaming him to avoid admitting that Early might drink, smoke pot, or lie? Tough love advocates should appreciate the book’s loud and clear argument against permissive parenthood—not that Early’s misbehavior is beyond the norm until his crime, which is itself frightening precisely because it feels so random, a tragic case of accelerating teenage tempers and impulsiveness. Ultimately, Goldman dodges answering her own provocative questions about parenting. Early gathers moral courage in prison, while Kathryne, now divorced, learns to give him independence—or so she says.

An odd combination of vehement message and purposely ambiguous characters: admirable but not entirely enjoyable.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 2004

ISBN: 0-06-059458-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2004

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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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