A gritty, emotionally sensitive clutch of stories.

WE COULD'VE BEEN HAPPY HERE

A debut story collection about hard-luck denizens of rural and exurban Iowa.

The heartland, as captured in Lesmeister’s debut, is a downcast place, replete with meth shacks, mortality, and regret. The narrator of “Burrowing Animals” is a recovering addict who’s desperate to prove he’s worthy of seeing his children again; in “Lie Here Next to Me,” a young woman tries to protect her dying mother from her grandmother’s interventions; in “A Real Future,” one of the few black residents of a rural county endures a series of headaches and humiliations from everyone from DMV workers to people judging his marriage to a white woman. Lesmeister’s vision of Iowa isn't exclusively somber, though. He can bring wit and lightness to these dirty-realist tales, as in “Today You’re Calling Me Lou,” in which the narrator ferries his foulmouthed, no-nonsense grandmother to a garage sale. (“She laughs and it sounds like motor oil gurgling around her lungs.”) He can also craft tender characterizations, as in “Between the Fireflies,” in which two fifth-graders are charged with shooting rabbits approaching a neighborhood garden, a task lightly in parallel to the girl’s father’s deployment in the Middle East. And like any good short story writer, he can deliver an eye-catching opening (“Elbow and I ducked out of our nephew’s birthday party and drove to Walmart to check on ammo prices”), though a broader canvas might improve some of these stories, which sometimes close on notes of pat ambiguity. But for a first-timer, Lesmeister has developed an admirably concise style and a knack for capturing people during difficult coming-of-age moments or dispiriting processes of decline. Like the amateur cowherds in the title story, they’re recognizing that life is often disorderly, with help hard to come by.

A gritty, emotionally sensitive clutch of stories.

Pub Date: May 16, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-944850-05-0

Page Count: 211

Publisher: MG Press

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2017

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The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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