This PG-rated comedic soap opera is innocuously pleasant but neither complex nor challenging.

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A Room Full of Naked Men

A small town is scandalized by the possibility of a racy entry in a local art show in Whitson’s debut novel.

Thirty-year-old Sarah Louise Upshaw’s life is a tableau of quiet mediocrity. She’s an art teacher in Sulphur Springs, Tennessee, lives at home with her parents, and is perennially single. Every year, she enters one of her paintings in the town art show, and every year, she wins third place at best and never manages to sell a single piece. The chairman of the show, town busybody Lucinda Hardin-Powell, tries to call Sarah Louise at home to see whether she plans on entering the contest again this year, but her mother, who’s inexplicably overwhelmed by anxiety, answers instead; she spontaneously announces the title of Sarah Louise’s offering as “A Room Full of Naked Men.” Sarah Louise is aesthetically committed to an uncompromising realism—she only paints what she can see—and so she’s compelled to recruit, with the help of her mother, five men to pose naked for her. (It’s never clear why she feels beholden to keep that title, however.) Some in the town, like Lucinda, are piqued by the ribald subject matter, but others, like the show’s curator, Huey Eugene Pugh, see the controversy as an opportunity to revive the event’s waning popularity. Meanwhile, Sarah Louise finally gets yanked out of her comfort zone. Readers in search of something lighthearted will find this to be a painlessly funny and sweet tale. Whitson has a keen eye for wholesome high jinks, and her family-friendly comedy achieves a sense of the ridiculous without a hint of darkness. The protagonist seems specifically designed to be blandly attractive—she only paints cats and flowers, and is incapable of producing an “emotionally draining painting.” Her companionably benign comportment, though, makes the novel’s premise hard to pull off, as there’s really no good reason to believe that her painting will be truly risqué. Also, the characters are generally formulaic; the depiction of Pugh, a flamboyant, campy gay man, seems especially shopworn.

This PG-rated comedic soap opera is innocuously pleasant but neither complex nor challenging.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-68207-074-1

Page Count: 434

Publisher: Tate Publishing

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2016

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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