A sharp and tightly crafted tale of campus exploitation.

MISS JANE

THE LOST YEARS

A young college student begins an affair with her history professor in this novel.

Why is a male teaching women’s history?” That’s what Miss Jane, a “Cracker hick/chick” away at a state university on a scholarship, would like to know when she sits down with her 30 female classmates (and three female teaching assistants) in Prof P’s seminar classroom. Her precociousness does not escape the professor’s notice, as he quickly moves Jane from the study group overseen by TA Alice to his own. Prof P is a popular, hip teacher, the kind who holds his classes outside and tosses his students’ notebooks across the lawn, haranguing them not to scribble but to think. He is a divorced father on the cusp of middle age, and Jane is the ninth of his “college gal projects,” easy conquests due to the power imbalance between teacher and pupil. Jane can’t help but be flattered by the attention Prof P heaps on her. Anyway, he’s easier to talk to than hookup partner and fellow student Seth B. Despite the warnings of her ambitious roommate, Cinda G, Jane allows Prof P to seduce her before finals. She feels deeply confused about the affair while home for Christmas break but then accepts Prof P’s offer to move in with him when she returns to school the next semester. As Jane becomes more deeply embroiled in Prof P’s world—his colleagues, children, and the complicit echo chamber of the academy—the situation threatens to upend her education and cause more lasting damage: “With Miss Jane nightly in his bed, Prof P’s mission grows exponentially more ambitious. To subdue a body, one thing; to reprogram a mind, a thing far grander.” Meads’ (In This Season of Rage and Melancholy Such Irrevocable Acts as These, 2016, etc.) prose is playfully postmodern, layered with linguistic tricks and dripping with self-awareness. The narrator is a Greek chorus animated by the righteous indignation that the confused Jane does not yet possess: “Thematically we will stay the course. Power politics. Sexual politics. Age versus youth. Authority’s manipulation of head-to-pubes-to-toe confusion. The world’s themes do not change, why should they here?” The novel is short, but nearly every sentence is imbued with a wry, astute, or lyrical comment. While at first the whole thing feels highly satirical, the characters are slowly revealed to possess unexpected complexity, particularly Jane and her fellow students. Even Prof P, who is not at all sympathetic, is frighteningly believable. Meads endeavors not simply to show how such an affair comes about, but also how much damage it can do to the younger party. She provides a response to the many campus novels over the years written from the (usually permissive) perspective of the lecherous professor. Though the story takes place in 1969—and many of the barbs, such as Prof P’s Greek fisherman’s cap and turquoise necklace, are aimed specifically at that era—the book feels incredibly relevant to today’s reckoning with powerful men’s sexual abuse of the women around them.

A sharp and tightly crafted tale of campus exploitation.

Pub Date: May 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60489-201-7

Page Count: 203

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2018

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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