Slight in girth but not in depth.



In Vapnyar’s (Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, 2008, etc.) latest novel, a simplicity of narrative—two strangers share their lives over a weekend together—belies the complexity of interwoven themes and ideas.

As the book begins, Lena is a self-conscious, self-criticizing woman traveling to an academic conference she does not feel prepared for, being only a professor at a community college. The trip, though, is also a temporary escape from her miserable marriage and, thus, welcome. En route, she fixates on the summer she spent, many years ago, as a counselor for 8- to 10-year-olds at a summer camp in her native Soviet Russia. There, though an outsider by nature, Lena had a friend in her co-counselor, Inka. At camp, there was the prospect of romance, and sex, with the male soldiers who worked there. There was gossip and fantastic stories told not only by Lena and Inka, but by the children they tended. And there were mysteries, too. Small things that touched Lena personally, but didn’t add up and never resolved. It’s clear that, in some space of Lena’s head, she has never left. At the conference, she meets Ben, a university professor who teaches courses on graphic novels. Because he is interested, and asks her directly, Lena begins to tell Ben stories from camp, stories she’s never told before—walking through woods, corralling children, the heat wave and the mysteries that persist. Ben has his own strangely intense childhood stories and is equally unhappy in his relationship. Impulsively, they embark on a road trip together, sharing chapters of their lives along the way; both characters grow more vivid in the process, as if dusting each other off for new use. Vapnyar’s writing style feels like Lena’s camp—everything seems to be in plain sight, but one can sense deeper truths hiding below the surface. As Ben and Lena get close to uncovering some of these truths, their time together inevitably dwindles. Purely silly moments, the headiness of strangers connecting and the universal nature of summer camp lighten the mood.

Slight in girth but not in depth.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-1262-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2013

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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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With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in...

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This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright.

It’s not for nothing that Ng (Everything I Never Told You, 2014) begins her second novel, about the events leading to the burning of the home of an outwardly perfect-seeming family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997, with two epigraphs about the planned community itself—attesting to its ability to provide its residents with “protection forever against…unwelcome change” and “a rather happy life” in Utopia. But unwelcome change is precisely what disrupts the Richardson family’s rather happy life, when Mia, a charismatic, somewhat mysterious artist, and her smart, shy 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, move to town and become tenants in a rental house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents. Mia and Pearl live a markedly different life from the Richardsons, an affluent couple and their four high school–age children—making art instead of money (apart from what little they need to get by); rooted in each other rather than a particular place (packing up what fits in their battered VW and moving on when “the bug” hits); and assembling a hodgepodge home from creatively repurposed, scavenged castoffs and love rather than gathering around them the symbols of a successful life in the American suburbs (a big house, a large family, gleaming appliances, chic clothes, many cars). What really sets Mia and Pearl apart and sets in motion the events leading to the “little fires everywhere” that will consume the Richardsons’ secure, stable world, however, is the way they hew to their own rules. In a place like Shaker Heights, a town built on plans and rules, and for a family like the Richardsons, who have structured their lives according to them, disdain for conformity acts as an accelerant, setting fire to the dormant sparks within them. The ultimate effect is cataclysmic. As in Everything I Never Told You, Ng conjures a sense of place and displacement and shows a remarkable ability to see—and reveal—a story from different perspectives. The characters she creates here are wonderfully appealing, and watching their paths connect—like little trails of flame leading inexorably toward one another to create a big inferno—is mesmerizing, casting into new light ideas about creativity and consumerism, parenthood and privilege.

With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2429-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2017

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