A gripping, precisely composed tale about music and those who give their lives to it.


A young woman attempts to enter the elite and mainly male world of professional classical musicians during the 1950s in this literary novel.

In 1953, cellist Irena “Reenie” Siesel has just graduated from a conservatory. There, she’d been called gifted, exceptional even, but so far she’s only had offers for teaching positions—a path reserved for those unworthy of performing for a living. Making it as a performer is particularly hard for a woman because, as one female musician puts it, “the problem with women performers was they lacked the single-minded devotion necessary to sacrifice everything to their instruments.” Then Reenie gets a call out of the blue to replace the cellist of the Modern Strings, an avant-garde New York ensemble, at a music festival in Newport, Rhode Island. The group will play a selection of pieces, “from the Baroques to the moderns,” culminating in a new work by the ensemble’s difficult but brilliant leader, composer Arthur Cohen. During the four-day festival, Reenie attempts to navigate the tense, interpersonal dynamics of the Modern Strings while learning the material and demonstrating her talent and professionalism. After all, she may be invited at the end of the festival to join the group and move to New York, where the real musicians live. Reenie’s future with the ensemble quickly becomes complicated when, against her better judgment, she sleeps with Cohen in a fit of impulse—losing her virginity. Interspersed with her account of that weekend are scenes from decades later, when Reenie is in the memory unit of an assisted living facility. She receives a composition left by Cohen in his will—a work that he planned to have destroyed if she died before him. Her daughter and Cohen’s niece are arranging a performance in the hopes it will jog Reenie’s failing memory—but are these recollections worth recovering?

Osborn writes with incredible polish and subtlety, toggling between Reenie’s lush, moment-to-moment accounts from the ’50s and retrospective appraisals of the era: “The festival in Newport took place at a time when classical music was at its height in America, with Leonard Bernstein’s orchestra program and large concert audiences. Just ten years later, the audiences would shrink dramatically, but now no one knew that future.” The characters—particularly Reenie but also the demanding Arthur and the ensemble’s messy violinist Charles Breedlove and aloof violist Patrick Dempsey—are deftly rendered, and the author manages to capture seemingly every shifting tension in each relationship. Osborn also succeeds in writing about music in a way that elucidates and elevates an art form that is not easily put into words, particularly the ways in which the members of the group play together. The plot moves slowly, but it quickly teaches readers to appreciate its rhythm, which—like the sea that surrounds the festival location—is somewhat tidal. The narrative is unexpectedly suspenseful, particularly once readers have a grasp of the intensity of the personalities involved. The result is a meditation on art, aspiration, jealously, and selfishness, all placed against the backdrop of gender and shifting trends in the mid-20th-century classical music scene.

A gripping, precisely composed tale about music and those who give their lives to it.

Pub Date: May 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-60489-250-5

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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A flabby, fervid melodrama of a high-strung Southern family from Conroy (The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline), whose penchant for overwriting once again obscures a genuine talent. Tom Wingo is an unemployed South Carolinian football coach whose internist wife is having an affair with a pompous cardiac man. When he hears that his fierce, beautiful twin sister Savannah, a well-known New York poet, has once again attempted suicide, he escapes his present emasculation by flying north to meet Savannah's comely psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. Savannah, it turns out, is catatonic, and before the suicide attempt had completely assumed the identity of a dead friend—the implication being that she couldn't stand being a Wingo anymore. Susan (a shrink with a lot of time on her hands) says to Tom, "Will you stay in New York and tell me all you know?" and he does, for nearly 600 mostly-bloated pages of flashbacks depicting The Family Wingo of swampy Colleton County: a beautiful mother, a brutal shrimper father (the Great Santini alive and kicking), and Tom and Savannah's much-admired older brother, Luke. There are enough traumas here to fall an average-sized mental ward, but the biggie centers around Luke, who uses the skills learned as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam to fight a guerrilla war against the installation of a nuclear power plant in Colleton and is killed by the authorities. It's his death that precipitates the nervous breakdown that costs Tom his job, and Savannah, almost, her life. There may be a barely-glimpsed smaller novel buried in all this succotash (Tom's marriage and life as a football coach), but it's sadly overwhelmed by the book's clumsy central narrative device (flashback ad infinitum) and Conroy's pretentious prose style: ""There are no verdicts to childhood, only consequences, and the bright freight of memory. I speak now of the sun-struck, deeply lived-in days of my past.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1986

ISBN: 0553381547

Page Count: 686

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986

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A quick, biting critique of the publishing industry.

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What happens when a midlist author steals a manuscript and publishes it as her own?

June Hayward and Athena Liu went to Yale together, moved to D.C. after graduation, and are both writers, but the similarities end there. While June has had little success since publication and is struggling to write her second novel, Athena has become a darling of the publishing industry, much to June’s frustration. When Athena suddenly dies, June, almost accidentally, walks off with her latest manuscript, a novel about the World War I Chinese Labour Corps. June edits the novel and passes it off as her own, and no one seems the wiser, but once the novel becomes a smash success, cracks begin to form. When June faces social media accusations and staggering writer’s block, she can’t shake the feeling that someone knows the truth about what she’s done. This satirical take on racism and success in the publishing industry at times veers into the realm of the unbelievable, but, on the whole, witnessing June’s constant casual racism and flimsy justifications for her actions is somehow cathartic. Yes, publishing is like this; finally someone has written it out. At times, the novel feels so much like a social media feed that it’s impossible to stop reading—what new drama is waiting to unfold. and who will win out in the end? An incredibly meta novel, with commentary on everything from trade reviews to Twitter, the ultimate message is clear from the start, which can lead to a lack of nuance. Kuang, however, does manage to leave some questions unanswered: fodder, perhaps, for a new tweetstorm.

A quick, biting critique of the publishing industry.

Pub Date: May 16, 2023

ISBN: 9780063250833

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 22, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2023

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