Urgent moral questions underlie a captivating mystery.

ABIGAIL

Sequestered at a boarding school during World War II, a rebellious teenager confronts secrets, lies, and danger.

Published in Hungary in 1970, and translated into English for the first time by Rix, this intricately plotted novel by Prix Femina Étranger winner Szabó (1917-2007) (Katalin Street, 2017, etc.) complicates a predictable coming-of-age tale by setting it in perilous times: War rages, patriotism incites bitterness and bigotry, and a clandestine resistance movement stealthily arises. When 14-year-old Gina is sent suddenly from her home in Budapest to an elite religious school in the provinces, she feels deeply bereft: of her beloved governess, who was forced to return to her native France; of her aunt’s delightful tea dances; of encounters with a handsome lieutenant with whom she is infatuated; and, most of all, of her father, whom she loves so deeply that she “felt the world complete only when they were together.” Protected, indulged, and self-absorbed, Gina suffers protracted (and somewhat irritating) adolescent angst. She hates the academy: Once a medieval monastery, it looms like a fortress; girls, dressed in black uniforms, their hair braided unfashionably, are forbidden to bring jewelry, scented soaps, or even toothbrushes from home. Obedience to Christian precepts and school authority is strictly enforced—and, by Gina, repeatedly flouted. She breaks rules, antagonizes her teachers and classmates, and mocks rituals and traditions, including the girls’ veneration of a statue they call Abigail, which has the uncanny power to know everything that happens at the school and offer warnings and sage advice. “All my life I have been a wild thing,” Gina reflects. “I am impatient and impulsive, and I have never learned to love people who annoy me or try to hurt me.” But when her father, visiting unexpectedly, reveals the reason he had to send her away, she vows to behave and realizes that Abigail is watching over her. Far from a supernatural being, Abigail’s real identity, Gina believes, is “someone inside these fortress walls who lives a secret life.”

Urgent moral questions underlie a captivating mystery.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-68137-403-1

Page Count: 360

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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