Daring and devastating: 20th-century history made personal.

A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN

Five generations of willful, restless women struggle to find an identity beyond that of wife and mother.

Dorothy Trevor Townsend bequeathes one heck of a legacy when she dies at age 34 in 1914. The British suffragette starves herself to death as an act of civil disobedience, leaving behind two fatherless children and a married lover. Her act is doubly shocking, occurring as it does during the carnage of World War I. Dorothy’s son Thomas ends up with family friends in California, becomes a musician and dies young of alcoholism. Daughter Evelyn endures wartime deprivations at boarding school before finding her way to America as well. She becomes a well-known chemistry professor at Barnard, eschewing traditional attachments and family life. Thomas’s daughter, Dorothy Townsend Barrett, takes a different route, marrying and producing three children, only to realize in her 70s that she has always been miserable. So she protests the Iraq war, divorces her devoted husband Charles and starts a blog, to the horror of her responsible eldest daughter Caroline. With an empty nest and a divorce of her own, Caroline is stunned to recognize the role that fear has played in her life. Caroline’s sister Liz, like the others, has talent and brains, but late motherhood and a busy, privileged life in Manhattan have made her question what it all means. When Liz was a child, she slipped into her mother’s purse a verse she’d written that contained the line “I am a hollow bone.” It resonates throughout the lives of all these women: “It’s as if I echo, or rather, feel in myself an absence,” says Dorothy Barrett. “I feel as if I’ve forgotten something, as if there’s a question I forgot to answer.” Walbert (Our Kind, 2004, etc.) is careful to give equal weight to their challenges through different eras. The male characters are not as fully fleshed out as they could be, but Charles’ longing for the wife he never really had is quite moving.

Daring and devastating: 20th-century history made personal.

Pub Date: June 16, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4165-9498-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2009

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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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