A brilliantly written but uneven and sometimes aimless saga of dysfunction.

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SENTENCING SILENCE

A young woman works through psychosexual trauma with lurid excess and much introspection in this sprawling debut novel.

Nesbitt, a poet and fiction writer, tells the story of June Barrett, a woman in her 20s in Reagan-era Chicago who undergoes several drastic changes in lifestyle and persona. She begins as the wife of up-and-coming young architect Cam as they settle into a well-heeled yuppiehood. Cracks soon appear in their facade: Cam begins castigating June for supposed hookups but also pressures her to start swinging with two other couples. When he develops a cocaine addiction, he grows controlling and even violent, prodding June to consider leaving the marriage. She does that with a vengeance in the novel’s second part, working as a prostitute under the name Reni. Her life becomes a picaresque of tawdry “dates” and bachelor parties, described in graphic but prosaic detail, and she dabbles in check fraud, booze, and drugs. Part three shifts gears again, with Reni moving out of prostitution and, as Sandy, into a giddy lesbian live-in relationship with a Vietnamese-American artist named Mary Colleen “Coolly” Shea. Their seemingly sparkling romance darkens into paranoia, abandonment, and a downward spiral that ends with Sandy sinking into a coma after she is run over by a bus. The complex narrative intercuts Sandy and Coolly’s story with scenes of Sandy/June in the hospital struggling with rehab and pondering her fraught family history of abuse. Nesbitt weaves a Joycean tapestry in the novel’s 502 pages, replacing Dublin with an atmospheric, sometimes nightmarish Chicago stocked with sharply observed characters, from a gay antiques shop owner to a motherly diner waitress, all surrounded by the labyrinthine ruminations and memories of June and her alter-egos. The author is a superb writer with a fine ear for dialogue, an eye for setting and behavior, and a talent for lyrical prose that’s evocative and sensual even when it’s abstract. (“Hope was not an obsidian mountain to be scaled, not a bog of sewage to be drowning in, but the melted snow of a river rushing with abandon into a clear vernal pool; I could find inordinate joy in grocery bag dresses tied with jump rope; I could tell boys I wasn’t afraid of worms.”) Unfortunately, the story often seems thin and disjointed; while the changes June endures are heavily foreshadowed, they don’t feel well motivated. The June-Cam plot bogs down in décor (“I learned quickly…to marry style periods…like the leather couches Cam wanted for the living room with the Art Nouveau sofa table I found”). They seem like a mismatched couple whose breakup is more a relief than a tragedy. Reni’s odyssey as a prostitute is the book’s best part; her adventures merit the author’s literary flair and have an invigorating thread of grotesque comedy. (“Hello, bay-be. Rest that hand now, reinforcements have arrived,” declares Reni’s brassy partner Kay upon meeting a sad-sack client.) Part Three’s Sandy-Coolly romance is unconvincing, sunny, and blissful until it’s not. Throughout the volume run intermittent meditations on June’s childhood and family relationships, which seem unpleasant but only mildly dysfunctional—and not very gripping—until fragmented revelations gel toward the tale’s end. As disturbing as they are, they come too late to weld June’s/Reni’s/Sandy’s experiences into a dramatic whole.

A brilliantly written but uneven and sometimes aimless saga of dysfunction.

Pub Date: April 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5439-5970-3

Page Count: 524

Publisher: BookBaby

Review Posted Online: July 11, 2019

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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