Behind the Scenes at the Museum proved Atkinson can be playful and probing when she chooses. Fans of this talented writer...

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EMOTIONALLY WEIRD

The author of Whitbread Award–winner Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1996) indulges in even more of the postmodern game-playing that disrupted Human Croquet (1997).

The year is 1972. Twenty-one-year-old Euphemia Stuart-Murray and her mother, Nora, are camped out at the crumbling family home on a remote Scottish island. “We must get on, we must tell our tales,” says Nora, and Effie begins with details of her adventures in graduate school just a month earlier at Dundee University. She’s living with Bob, a fellow student more interested in watching Star Trek, smoking dope, and listening to Led Zeppelin than attending classes. Effie’s not doing much better: she owes papers to all her professors and can barely muster up the energy to attend her tutorial, led by pompous Archie McCue, who spouts academic gibberish to his indifferent tutees. Interspersed with Effie’s narration are snatches from the murder mystery she’s writing for another class; from Archie’s endless experimental novel, The Expanding Prism of J; from the heavy-breathing romance his wife is penning; and from other students’ work, including a Tolkien-like fantasy and a Beckettesque nihilistic drama. All of these highlight Atkinson’s wicked wit without much advancing the plot—not that it matters, since the storyline is a slapdash affair involving various lost dogs, a ratty private eye, and lots of humor at the expense of self-important ’70s radicalism and perennial grad-student aimlessness. Nora’s story, parceled out reluctantly at Effie’s urging, concerns her daughter’s mysterious origins; the final revelations about both women’s parentage will not surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to the heavy foreshadowing. Atkinson’s jokes are funny, her characters lively (if cartoonish), but her scattershot approach to storytelling wears thin long before the end.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum proved Atkinson can be playful and probing when she chooses. Fans of this talented writer can only hope that next time out she’ll concentrate more on emotional substance, less on narrative tricks.

Pub Date: June 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-312-20324-1

Page Count: 346

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2000

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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