An earnest fictional effort that, in all, still seems to be searching for what it really wants to be about.

SERIOUSLY

Certain moments have their allure, but most things are familiar in Nevai’s (Normal, stories, 1997) tales of small-town gossip, suspicion, and intrigue.

Tamara Johanssen fled to the little Dustin, New York, because—well, because her very crazy mother burned down the family house along with the family members unlucky enough to be in it, the two exceptions being Tamara herself (out on a date, sort of) and older sister Nora, who’d already fled the coop and headed off to become a rich and big-time TV producer. This rather operatic premise, however, recedes quickly into the background as Tamara describes life in little Dustin, where she opens an art gallery—with money from sister Nora—and then segues into life as a photographer. The book is presented as a novel but reads more like a “novel-in-stories” hybrid—not that there’s anything wrong with that, except that in Nevai’s case a sense of novelistic growth seems to have gone missing. Part of the problem is the near-obligatory and afternoon-soap feel of much of the material: the mean-spirited old codger who runs the post office; the good-hearted woman who has the coffee shop; the crazed-by-property-rights person who sits on her lawn with a shotgun on Halloween—and actually shoots it at Tamara as she approaches. Add in an arsonist, a neurasthenic lesbian entrepreneur, downtrodden wives, stalkers, the wannabe Faulknerian episode of the eccentric who dies in his trailer but nobody knows it, so that—anyway, with all these lives from a latter-day Spoon River or Winesburg, Ohio, crowding the canvas, not only does Tamara’s secret (for awhile) affair with the lawyer-husband of sister Nora’s bitchy college roommate glide away as if on the river of the forgotten, but so does the theme of mother-madness that putatively first set the book’s events originally into motion.

An earnest fictional effort that, in all, still seems to be searching for what it really wants to be about.

Pub Date: June 9, 2004

ISBN: 0-316-74693-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2004

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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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