Beautiful stuff—and a brilliant debut.

THE GANGSTER WE ARE ALL LOOKING FOR

A detailed and moving saga of a Vietnamese family in America, subtly assembled from this limpid debut’s kaleidoscopic array of gorgeous and troubling word pictures.

The unnamed narrator’s musings move forward and backward in time, from East to West, between her confused childhood and the “escape” she makes from her parents in California to relocate in the eastern US. The early pages describe her flight, with her father (Ba) and four uncles, from Vietnam by boat, their arrival in San Diego, and troubled relationships with a well-meaning American host family. After she and Ba have been reunited with her mother (Ma), the narrator then describes their constant moves from one apartment and job to another. We then learn about her parents’ youth, and Ma’s estrangement from her family for having married “a Buddhist gangster” who’s also her social inferior. As these details emerge, thúy builds a heart-wrenching picture of her narrator’s abstracted, conflicted psyche, repeatedly reemphasizing the girl’s preternatural sensitivity to new sights, sounds, smells, and textures while revealing the death of her older brother by drowning in childhood, and how this loss haunted her family for many years after. The consequent impressions of disorientation, resentment, and loneliness are powerfully conveyed by numerous abrupt, startling images (a girl killed by a napalm bombing that “made her body glow, like a lantern”; a dead butterfly preserved in a glass disk and employed as a paperweight; and a climactic vision of the bodies of small “silver fish” washed out of the open sea onto a moonlit beach). The narrative thus resembles a song with a pronounced central refrain, around which an infinite number of verse variations are clustered.

Beautiful stuff—and a brilliant debut.

Pub Date: May 13, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-40018-4

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 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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