An interesting departure from Kalfus’s Slavic-inflected earlier fiction (including PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies,...

A DISORDER PECULIAR TO THE COUNTRY

The fallout from 9/11 casts a pall over an already moribund marriage in Kalfus’s second novel (following his terrific The Commissariat of Enlightenment, 2003).

When NYC working mom Joyce Harriman hears the bad news about the World Trade Center, she instantly fantasizes that her husband Marshall (who works there) is among the dead. In fact, he walks out alive, and back into a contentious détente in which the battling spouses coexist angrily in the comfy apartment neither wants to give up, tiptoeing around the needs of their demanding, borderline-“difficult” young children Viola and Victor. Kalfus deftly charts the unraveling pair’s separate experiences of resentment, loneliness, pursuit of replacement love (or at least sex) in assorted wrong places and the gradual adjustment to their irreparable incompatibility. Bravura sequences include Joyce’s rather sad and pathetic seduction of a longtime friend’s unhappy husband, Marshall’s amusingly intricate demolition of his sister-in-law’s wedding and—in an ingeniously contrived scenario that nevertheless doesn’t quite work—Marshall’s failed attempt to dignify his despair and frustration by becoming a suicide bomber. Both the strength and the weakness of this clever novel in fact inhere in the structure of parallels Kalfus draws between the Harrimans’ escalating “war” and the embattled Middle East, beyond the terrorist bombings here at home, through the U.S. invasion of Iraq and into a fantasized alternative future that slyly mocks America’s—and the Harrimans’—naïve idealism. Both Joyce and Marshall are sharply drawn characters, and Kalfus makes us feel their pain even when both are indulging their most infuriating traits (her quick resort to temper tantrums, his tendency to hatch overly elaborate plans that collapse under their own weight).

An interesting departure from Kalfus’s Slavic-inflected earlier fiction (including PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, 1999). Astringent, accomplished black comedy.

Pub Date: July 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-050140-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2006

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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