Ellen’s fortune has improved, but her charm has curdled into self-congratulatory superiority.

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THE LIFE ALL AROUND ME BY ELLEN FOSTER

After six intervening novels (Divining Women, 2004, etc.), Gibbons returns to the eponymous heroine of her first, Ellen Foster (1987), still plucky and brilliant but no longer beset by hard luck.

The year is 1974, Ellen, 15 and about to start ninth grade, writes a letter to Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, proposing that she skip high school and head straight there. Although her best friends remain Starletta and the devoted goofball Stuart, Ellen knows she has intellectually outgrown her small southern town. Having been orphaned, lost her grandmother and been thrown out of her Aunt Nadine’s house, Ellen now lives with a stable, loving foster mother, Laura. Ellen helps rid Laura of her other, more troublesome foster children by snitching to their social worker about delinquent behavior. Laura then convinces the social worker that she’s up to the challenge of nurturing Ellen’s fabulous IQ, and adopts her. Ellen’s teachers turn a blind eye when she sells poetry homework assignments to her semi-literate classmates to earn the entrance fee to an enrichment course at Johns Hopkins; naturally, she shows up hoity-toity fellow geniuses. Meanwhile, thanks to a note from Derek Bok asking him to check on Ellen, a local Harvard-educated lawyer discovers that he’s been duped by the scheming Aunt Nadine. She has forced Ellen’s cousin Dora to sign legal papers as if she were Ellen. In fact, Ellen has an inheritance coming. Nadine and the pregnant Dora leave town, but first Dora gives Ellen the box Ellen’s mother’s left for her. Ellen finds hospital records that tell the sad story of her mother’s physical and emotional heartbreak. Ever-resilient Ellen shares her material good fortune with her friends. Then Bok writes Ellen, inviting her to attend summer school and guaranteeing her a place at Harvard in the class of 1981—on full scholarship, of course.

Ellen’s fortune has improved, but her charm has curdled into self-congratulatory superiority.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-15-101204-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2005

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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