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THE TOPOGRAPHY OF HIDDEN STORIES

A strong collection of stories connected by deep Irish American roots.

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Irish Americans deal with challenges and opportunities in the 20th century.

In this short story collection, MacDonnell follows a large cast of Irish American characters through the ups and downs of the second half of the 20th century. In “Whistle-Stop,” a child draws her parents’ ire when she absorbs their adulation of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. “Red Stain on Yellow Dress” follows a young pregnant woman traveling to get an illegal abortion. In “Diana’s Dresses,” the setting is the late 1990s as a mother and daughter deal with questions of mortality while visiting a traveling exhibition of Princess Diana’s wardrobe. Problems of life and death also appear in “Dancing With NED,” in which a seriously ill woman’s husband and sister accompany her to an oncologist’s office, “a pinnacle of the health care system, a place above bed pans, barf buckets and blood, the stench of unhealing wounds, the fearful cries of the dying.” The author’s characters cover a range of socio-economic classes, but nearly all are of Irish descent, with many having roots on the South Shore of Boston. “Soy Paco,” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, is the exception, though its theme and tone allow it to fit easily into the rest of the collection. While there are moments of tenderness, like the bonds a new mom unexpectedly finds with her own mother in “Violets,” violence, abuse, and dysfunction more often characterize the volume’s families. Those who fail to conform are often pressured or ostracized, beatings are doled out, and a pacifist mother makes her son throw away the violent toys he received for Christmas in “Weapons of War.”

Despite the stories’ bleak aspects, the book is an enjoyable read. MacDonnell’s writing is frequently elegant, full of vivid metaphors (“His sisters, three pale silent women, who’d nod and sigh and press their palms together like Daddy had just spoken The Word, and that The Word had come to dwell among us”) and descriptive language (“She sees her mother surrounded by lengths of these fabrics: satin, tulle, taffeta, shantung; her mother, a hard bright thing, a stone, in this rainbow of luscious color”). The plots are both familiar and unpredictable, drawing readers in while challenging their preconceptions. In addition to themes of family, loyalty, and independence that resonate from one tale to another, the work is also full of minor details that recur throughout. Three stories, set in different times and places, feature a baby sister named Caitlin; Frank Sinatra songs provide much of the soundtrack; older women wear “polyester pull-on pants”; and two tales are narrated by women living in buildings known as the Ten Commandments in the 1970s Bronx. Many of the protagonists are unnamed, adding to the repetitive nature of the stories as well as the sense that the discrete tales blend into a single narrative of a collective experience. Fans of Andre Dubus III and Jennifer Haigh will find much to appreciate in MacDonnell’s exploration of a narrow slice of the American experience.

A strong collection of stories connected by deep Irish American roots.

Pub Date: Jan. 25, 2021

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 226

Publisher: Fomite Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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LONG ISLAND

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

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  • New York Times Bestseller

An acclaimed novelist revisits the central characters of his best-known work.

At the end of Brooklyn (2009), Eilis Lacey departed Ireland for the second and final time—headed back to New York and the Italian American husband she had secretly married after first traveling there for work. In her hometown of Enniscorthy, she left behind Jim Farrell, a young man she’d fallen in love with during her visit, and the inevitable gossip about her conduct. Tóibín’s 11th novel introduces readers to Eilis 20 years later, in 1976, still married to Tony Fiorello and living in the titular suburbia with their two teenage children. But Eilis’ seemingly placid existence is disturbed when a stranger confronts her, accusing Tony of having an affair with his wife—now pregnant—and threatening to leave the baby on their doorstep. “She’d known men like this in Ireland,” Tóibín writes. “Should one of them discover that their wife had been unfaithful and was pregnant as a result, they would not have the baby in the house.” This shock sends Eilis back to Enniscorthy for a visit—or perhaps a longer stay. (Eilis’ motives are as inscrutable as ever, even to herself.) She finds the never-married Jim managing his late father’s pub; unbeknownst to Eilis (and the town), he’s become involved with her widowed friend Nancy, who struggles to maintain the family chip shop. Eilis herself appears different to her old friends: “Something had happened to her in America,” Nancy concludes. Although the novel begins with a soap-operatic confrontation—and ends with a dramatic denouement, as Eilis’ fate is determined in a plot twist worthy of Edith Wharton—the author is a master of quiet, restrained prose, calmly observing the mores and mindsets of provincial Ireland, not much changed from the 1950s.

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

Pub Date: May 7, 2024

ISBN: 9781476785110

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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ALL FOURS

This tender, strange treatise on getting out from the “prefab structures” of a conventional life is quintessentially July.

A woman set to embark on a cross-country road trip instead drives to a nearby motel and becomes obsessed with a local man.

According to Harris, the husband of the narrator of July’s novel, everyone in life is either a Parker or a Driver. “Drivers,” Harris says, “are able to maintain awareness and engagement even when life is boring.” The narrator knows she’s a Parker, someone who needs “a discrete task that seems impossible, something…for which they might receive applause.” For the narrator, a “semi-famous” bisexual woman in her mid-40s living in Los Angeles, this task is her art; it’s only by haphazard chance that she’s fallen into a traditional straight marriage and motherhood. When the narrator needs to be in New York for work, she decides on a solo road trip as a way of forcing herself to be more of a metaphorical Driver. She makes it all of 30 minutes when, for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, she pulls over in Monrovia. After encountering a man who wipes her windows at a gas station and then chats with her at the local diner, she checks in to a motel, where she begins an all-consuming intimacy with him. For the first time in her life, she feels truly present. But she can only pretend to travel so long before she must go home and figure out how to live the rest of a life that she—that any woman in midlife—has no map for. July’s novel is a characteristically witty, startlingly intimate take on Dante’s “In the middle of life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood”—if the dark wood were the WebMD site for menopause and a cheap room at the Excelsior Motel.

This tender, strange treatise on getting out from the “prefab structures” of a conventional life is quintessentially July.

Pub Date: May 14, 2024

ISBN: 9780593190265

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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