The combination of social satire with an intimate portrait of loss and grief is stylistically ambitious and deeply moving.

THE SWIMMERS

Having concentrated on one family in her first novel, then eschewed individual protagonists for a collective “we” in her second, Otsuka now blends the two approaches, shifting from an almost impersonal, wide-lens view of society to an increasingly narrow focus on a specific mother-daughter relationship.

The book begins as tart social comedy. A narrative “we” represents various swimmers frequenting an underground community pool. A microcosm of America, they remain mostly anonymous, although a few names are dropped in from time to time as a kind of punctuation. The swimmers are fleshed out as a group by multiple lists detailing a wide range of occupations and social roles, motivations to swim, swimming styles, and eventually reactions to a mysterious crack that appears suddenly on the pool floor. Initially dismissed as inconsequential by the experts, the crack morphs, Covid-like, into more and more cracks until panicky authorities announce the pool will close altogether. What seems a minor act of grace on the final day of operation—the lifeguard generously allows a memory-impaired woman named Alice to swim one extra lap—leaves the reader unprepared for the sharp swerve the novel now makes. Alice takes center stage, her cognitive and eventual physical deterioration viewed from multiple angles. The narrative voice is now addressing itself to "you," Alice’s daughter, a Japanese American novelist with an obvious resemblance to the author, observing Alice’s decline in slightly removed, writerly detail as Alice’s memories drift from random, repetitive, and oddly specific to more random, less frequent, and increasingly vague. Institutional care follows, with the new “we” of the narrative voice addressing Alice in cold bureaucratic lingo that represents the nursing facility in a snarky, predictable, and disappointingly un-nuanced sketch of institutional care. As Alice fades further, the daughter returns. She berates herself for the ways she failed her mother. But dredging up her own memories, she also begins to recognize the love her parents felt for each other and for her.

The combination of social satire with an intimate portrait of loss and grief is stylistically ambitious and deeply moving.

Pub Date: Feb. 22, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-32133-1

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2021

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Gigantic, strange, exquisite, terrifying, and replete with mystery.

TO PARADISE

A triptych of stories set in 1893, 1993, and 2093 explore the fate of humanity, the essential power and sorrow of love, and the unique doom brought upon itself by the United States.

After the extraordinary reception of Yanagihara's Kirkus Prize–winning second novel, A Little Life (2015), her follow-up could not be more eagerly awaited. While it is nothing like either of her previous novels, it's also unlike anything else you've read (though Cloud Atlas, The House of Mirth, Martin and John, and Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy may all cross your mind at various points). More than 700 pages long, the book is composed of three sections, each a distinct narrative, each set in a counterfactual historical iteration of the place we call the United States. The narratives are connected by settings and themes: A house on Washington Square in Greenwich Village is central to each; Hawaii comes up often, most prominently in the second. The same names are used for (very different) characters in each story; almost all are gay and many are married. Even in the Edith Wharton–esque opening story, in which the scion of a wealthy family is caught between an arranged marriage and a reckless affair, both of his possible partners are men. Illness and disability are themes in each, most dramatically in the third, set in a brutally detailed post-pandemic totalitarian dystopia. Here is the single plot connection we could find: In the third part, a character remembers hearing a story with the plot of the first. She mourns the fact that she never did get to hear the end of it: "After all these years I found myself wondering what had happened....I knew it was foolish because they weren't even real people but I thought of them often. I wanted to know what had become of them." You will know just how she feels. But what does it mean that Yanagihara acknowledges this? That is just one of the conundrums sure to provoke years of discussion and theorizing. Another: Given the punch in the gut of utter despair one feels when all the most cherished elements of 19th- and 20th-century lives are unceremoniously swept off the stage when you turn the page to the 21st—why is the book not called To Hell?

Gigantic, strange, exquisite, terrifying, and replete with mystery.

Pub Date: Jan. 11, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-385-54793-2

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2021

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Light on suspense but still a solid page-turner.

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THE LAST THING HE TOLD ME

When a devoted husband and father disappears, his wife and daughter set out to find him.

Hannah Hall is deeply in love with her husband of one year, Owen Michaels. She’s also determined to win over his 16-year-old daughter, Bailey, who has made it very clear that she’s not thrilled with her new stepmother. Despite the drama, the family is mostly a happy one. They live in a lovely houseboat in Sausalito; Hannah is a woodturner whose handmade furniture brings in high-dollar clientele; and Owen works for The Shop, a successful tech firm. Their lives are shattered, however, when Hannah receives a note saying “Protect her” and can’t reach Owen by phone. Then there’s the bag full of cash Bailey finds in her school locker and the shocking news that The Shop’s CEO has been taken into custody. Hannah learns that the FBI has been investigating the firm for about a year regarding some hot new software they took to market before it was fully functional, falsifying their financial statements. Hannah refuses to believe her husband is involved in the fraud, and a U.S. marshal assigned to the case claims Owen isn’t a suspect. Hannah doesn’t know whom to trust, though, and she and Bailey resolve to root out the clues that might lead to Owen. They must also learn to trust one another. Hannah’s narrative alternates past and present, detailing her early days with Owen alongside her current hunt for him, and author Dave throws in a touch of danger and a few surprises. But what really drives the story is the evolving nature of Hannah and Bailey’s relationship, which is by turns poignant and frustrating but always realistic.

Light on suspense but still a solid page-turner.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5011-7134-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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