A novel about race, education, and the fin de siècle fight for equal rights is left wanting.

In turn-of-the-20th-century New York, a woman passes as white to attain a college education.

Anita Hemmings, a real person, was the first black woman to graduate from Vassar College. To do so, she passed as white, and when her secret was discovered, her story filled newspapers across the United States. In her third novel, Tanabe (The List, 2013, etc.) sets out to illuminate that story. She focuses on Anita’s senior year of college, when her roommate was Lottie Taylor, in Tanabe’s telling a millionaire Manhattan socialite. Anita spent her first three years at Vassar flying under the radar: she studied hard, participated in various clubs, and held herself aloof to avoid suspicion. Tanabe’s descriptions of Anita’s isolation are effective. Then Lottie appears, drawing Anita out of herself and into her own high-society world. She even introduces Anita to the rich, handsome, and, of course, white Porter Hamilton, with whom Anita finds herself falling in love. These experiences put Anita at greater risk of being caught, but they also frame for her a fundamental choice she’ll have to make: to live as white, and to unbind the scope of her ambition, or to live as black, with all the restrictions that Gilded Age American life entailed. This is a detailed, well-researched book, and yet there’s something unconvincing about Tanabe’s depiction. It’s as if the psychological complexity of Anita’s situation has been somehow flattened. None of the characters—not even Anita or Lottie—ever come fully to life. Too much attention is paid to Vassar trivia and not enough to Anita’s fate, which is ultimately rushed through at the unsatisfying end. Tanabe has brought attention to a brilliant and fascinating woman, but she doesn’t seem to have done her justice.

A novel about race, education, and the fin de siècle fight for equal rights is left wanting.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1045-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Washington Square/Pocket

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2016



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



The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000