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MATRIX

Groff’s trademarkworthy sentences bring vivid buoyancy to a magisterial story.

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Set in early medieval Europe, this book paints a rousing portrait of an abbess seizing and holding power.

After the spicy, structurally innovative Fates and Furies (2015), Groff spins back 850 years to a girl on a horse: “She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.” The inspiration is a historical figure, Marie de France, considered the first woman to write poetry in French. Groff gives her a fraught, lifelong, sexually charged tie to Eleanor of Aquitaine. A matrix, which comes from the Latin for mother, builds implacably between Eleanor and Marie. But in the first chapter, the queen rids the court of an ungainly, rustic Marie by installing her in a remote English convent, home to 20 starving nuns. The sisters hang the traveler’s clothes in the communal privy, where “the ammonia of the piss kills the beasties”—the lice. After a long sulk, Marie rouses herself to examine the abbey’s disastrous ledgers, mount her warhorse, and gallop forth to turn out the family most egregiously squatting on convent land. News spreads and the rents come in, “some grumbling but most half proud to have a woman so tough and bold and warlike and royal to answer to now.” The novel is at its best through Marie's early years of transforming the ruined, muddy convent, bit by bit, into a thriving estate, with a prosperous new scriptorium, brimming fields, and spilling flocks, protected by a forest labyrinth and spies abroad. In this way, Marie forestalls the jealous priests and village men plotting against her. Readers of Arcadia (2012), Groff’s brilliantly evocative hippie commune novel, will remember her gift for conjuring life without privacy. And she knows a snake always lurks within Eden. The cloister witnesses lust, sex, pregnancy, peril. Marie has visions of the Virgin Mary, 19 in all, but these passages stay flat. Medieval mystics, unsurprisingly, write better about mysticism. The gesture toward a lost theology based on Marie’s visions amounts to weak tea.

Groff’s trademarkworthy sentences bring vivid buoyancy to a magisterial story.

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59463-449-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: June 15, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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