Dramatic potential sadly underdeveloped.

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SEA ESCAPE

Griffin’s second novel (Life Without Summer, 2009) grapples weakly with the woes of the sandwich generation.

Laura, a pediatric nurse, has her hands full with her marginally ADD son Henry, ten, and her irrepressible five-year-old daughter Claire. She’s engrossed in preparations for her mother Helen’s birthday party when the elderly Helen suffers a stroke at her oceanside retreat, Sea Escape. At the hospital, Laura debates whether to summon her brother Holden. A supercilious lawyer several years Laura’s senior, Holden is estranged from both sister and mother despite the fact that on his rare visits, Helen fawns over him. Letters discovered at Sea Escape reveal Helen’s life-defining romance with her husband, Joseph, Korean war vet turned globe-trotting war correspondent. Chapters detailing Helen’s struggle to make a life at Sea Escape alternate with Laura’s present narration. Since Laura is too busy negotiating the treacherous shoals of elder care—her penny-pinching husband Christian and his well-meaning but scattered sister Luce are just compounding the crisis—she hasn’t had time to read her parents’ entire correspondence, which spans from the ’50s to the mid-’70s. If she had, she would have learned (as Helen’s segments reveal early on) that Holden’s alienation stems largely from the fact that he is not Helen and Joseph’s son but the adopted illegitimate son of Helen’s best friend, who committed suicide. The reason for the gap in the siblings’ ages is Helen’s three pregnancies, resulting from Joseph’s sporadic furloughs at home, that ended in stillbirth or miscarriage. When Joseph is killed during the 1975 evacuation of Saigon, Helen sinks into a walking stupor that lasts a quarter-century. Helen’s passive acceptance of her suffering proves even more grating when a virtually unforeshadowed bombshell is dropped on the hapless reader. Griffin sets up promising conflicts—Holden is withholding key family secrets from Laura, Helen’s rehab center is trying to force her into nursing-home hell, to name only two—then resolves them by fiat.

Dramatic potential sadly underdeveloped.

Pub Date: July 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4391-8060-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2010

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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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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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