Tait’s debut novel is weighed down by stereotypical characters and situations.

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FAKE PLASTIC LOVE

A college friendship between two Dartmouth women is tested by post-graduation life in New York City.

M. (our narrator goes by a single initial) and her best friend, Belle Bailey, could not be more different. M. is an ultraserious finance major and varsity squash player who has little interest in or luck with the opposite sex. Belle is a character from a musical, “blond head and hundred-watt smile and apple-red accessories,” given to penning invitations on her monogrammed letterpress cards that say things like “Ice-skating on Occom Pond after class today—bundle up in College colors and I’ll bring the hot cocoa (spiked, of course—shhhhh!).” When both of Belle’s parents are killed in a plane crash, she becomes even more of a romantic figure. After graduation, M. lands a job at Bartholomew Brothers, “the most iconic of the New York investment banks”—as does Chase Breckenridge, the repugnant frat boy Belle's been dating all through college, though why she would be interested in this pig of a fellow remains anyone’s guess. While Belle rides around Manhattan on her red bicycle, taking photos for her airy-fairy lifestyle blog, La Belle Vie, M. toils away at the viciously sexist, competitive, and abusive firm, dealing with the horrific Chase and even less savory characters. The one exception is a whimsical former hot air balloonist named Jeremy, who could not be more out of place in finance but seems made for Belle. Unfortunately, none of these characters ever feels real, and the results of their poor choices are muffled—even the market crash seems to happen offstage. When M. turns down both the job at a socially conscious firm and the ideal man that drop on her doorstep, both are waiting for her when she comes to her senses. Along similar lines, it wasn’t a great decision to start the novel with M.'s wedding, undercutting possible suspense. “It didn’t add up to what I was told it would add up to,” says one character, referring to his career. “That may be the great tagline of our generation, you know,” says M. Unfortunately, it's also the tagline of this book.

Tait’s debut novel is weighed down by stereotypical characters and situations.

Pub Date: May 9, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-250-09389-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 27, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2017

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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