Epstein’s best book since his 1979 triumph King of the Jews—a synthesis of history and imaginative daring, akin to Catch-22...



The fate of Italy’s Jews during World War II and the visionary folly of a truculent anti-Semitic genius are the subjects of Epstein’s sprawling, ambitious tenth novel.

The complex narrative juxtaposes three interconnected stories: the memories of aged Max Shabilian during a 2005 return flight to Rome, where he had become the de facto right-hand man (and son-in-law) of maverick American architect Amos Prince; the diary in which Prince recorded his experiences, insights and prejudices; and a chronological account of the rise and fall of Mussolini’s brutal Fascist dictatorship. Epstein’s maze-like approach—which begins with “A Prologue” recounting acts of aggrandizement from the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 1000 b.c. to Mussolini’s 1936 seizure of Ethiopia, and ends with a bitter summary of World War II’s waning days—takes some getting used to. But the story soars as we learn of Amos’s scheme to immortalize “Il Duce” by erecting a memorial mile-high skyscraper (La Vittoria) and realize that he’ll pay any price (not excluding the surrender of his beautiful daughter Aria to the dictator’s lust) to fulfill his grandiose dreams. And the story escalates to tragic proportions when Max (a Jew) conceives a plan to save captive Jews from being delivered to Italy’s ally the Third Reich, only to see it backfire, making him, not the savior he had hoped to be, but “Max the murderer.” Compelling (if sometimes overdrawn) extended scenes vividly portray the accumulating madness, and Epstein offers rich expressionistic characterizations of such startling figures as cantankerous Amos (who combines the worst qualities of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ezra Pound), his Fascist- and Nazi-loving son Franklin, Mussolini’s tempestuous Party Secretary Farinacci and politically savvy Chief Rabbi of Rome Israel Zolli (among many others).

Epstein’s best book since his 1979 triumph King of the Jews—a synthesis of history and imaginative daring, akin to Catch-22 and the encyclopedic historical fiction of Thomas Pynchon and William T. Vollmann.

Pub Date: Oct. 17, 2006

ISBN: 1-59051-250-2

Page Count: 472

Publisher: Handsel/Other Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2006

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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