For a character-driven work, this is a disappointing bunch. Henry is a bore, Ned a stereotype of the artist as egomaniac,...

ORCHARD

The art world is the only winner in this bleak look at an unhappy quartet: a painter, his model, and their spouses.

Opening shot: a man with a pistol sliding pell-mell down a snow-covered orchard to reach an artist’s studio. But Watson (Laura, 2000, etc.) plays with chronology in dizzying fashion, and that opening is a prelude to the climax. So let’s back up. In 1946, Henry House marries Sonja Skordahl in rural Wisconsin. Though Sonja has yet to master the nuances of her second language (her dirt-poor Norwegian parents shipped her to the US when she was 12), she understands from the get-go that Henry can be as “unyielding as stone.” He is a conventional man, an apple-grower like his father, and an outdoorsman. Character is destiny. If only Henry had sold his horse, Buck, at Sonja’s urging, it would not have caused their little boy’s death. In his grief, though, Henry turns to Buck, not Sonja. There’s a dumb accident, again involving Buck, and Henry can’t work. How to pay the bills? Secretly, Sonja poses nude for the internationally renowned Ned Weaver, whose pattern is to bed and discard his models in short order. But Sonja is different. Behind her sorrowful beauty is a secret he can’t unlock. She represents the supreme challenge of his career, and he exercises patience, both as artist and philanderer. Meanwhile, tongues wag. Henry’s equally conventional sister Phyllis scolds Sonja, but then, in a moving about-face and moment of transcendent sisterhood, accepts her credo. Sonja is not the property of either man: “I belong to myself.” Thinking differently, Henry ruins all their lives, though Ned’s wife Harriet, his faithful disciple, sells his paintings of Sonja for a cool four million.

For a character-driven work, this is a disappointing bunch. Henry is a bore, Ned a stereotype of the artist as egomaniac, and Harriet short-changed. Only Sonja stirs the soul. Watson’s sixth is graced by his customary fine detail work, but it’s not enough.

Pub Date: Aug. 19, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-50723-X

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2003

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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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