THE POPE'S RHINOCEROS

An exhausting banquet of a book, following an improbable adventurer on an unlikely quest during the turbulent 16th century. Norfolk has a talent for catching the strangeness and vigor of other times. His debut, Lempriäre's Dictionary (1992), was set in the 18th century, and involved a wonderfully large and gaudy cast of wanderers and decadent aristocrats, assassins, and mystics. His second novel is, if anything, even more audacious. Inspired by a true incident, it follows the remarkable experiences of an expedition sent to Africa in 1515 to capture a rhinoceros and transport it to Rome. The expedition was mounted by the Portuguese, struggling to hold on to their far-flung trading empire. The idea was that, by giving the rhinoceros—the most outlandish of creatures, the most unexpected of gifts—to the jaded Pope, he might be sufficiently bemused to side with the Portuguese in their desperate contest with Spain. Norfolk has built an exotic, grim narrative around this obscure (and futile) effort. At the heart of the action is Silvestro, a mercenary, a mystic, and a man with an astonishing talent for surviving, recruited for the expedition because he's an outsider and expendable. While the long voyage out and back is the story's centerpoint, it's only one part of Norfolk's considerable canvas, which also includes a peculiar, isolated order of monks, the plots and counterplots of two intemperate empires, and a wonderful portrait of a decrepit but nonetheless vivid Rome, filled with pilgrims, merchants, various ruthless groups contending for power within the Church, resourceful prostitutes, and equally inventive thieves. The great scale of the book eventually becomes daunting: One adventure spirals into another, escapes follow betrayals, revelation piles on revelation. But if the increasingly dark narrative seems finally too overstuffed with incident and too long, this is nonetheless one of the most original, energetic, and ambitious novels of recent years. It marks the emergence of a major writer.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-517-59532-X

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1996

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The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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