A haunting exploration of age, class, love, and loss that demands to be read and read again.

THE DOOR

A deeply affecting novel, first published in Hungary in 1987, from one of Europe’s most prominent modern writers.

Szabó’s narrator, not coincidentally named Magda, recalls an emotionally fraught 20-year relationship with her housekeeper. As the book opens in postwar communist Hungary, a decadelong political freeze on her writing career has been lifted and Magda seeks out a domestic helper to care for her and her husband’s new home in Budapest while she begins to write again. Through an old classmate’s recommendation, she meets Emerence Szeredás, an inscrutable older woman built like a “mythological hero” whose years of experience working in the neighborhood have rendered her a revered and almost iconic figure in town. Right off the bat, Magda learns that Emerence won’t just work for anybody: “This was the first time anyone had required references from us.” And after hijacking the interview, Emerence waits a whole week before appearing again to accept the job. Though beloved by many, Emerence keeps her complicated history private and lives alone in a flat—hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world—that even her closest friends are forbidden to enter. From the start of their relationship, Magda is perplexed by the enigmatic woman who is so unlike her—a peasant, “anti-intellectual,” and staunch atheist—but who moves and speaks with an inimitable elegance (“Emerence…was perfect in every respect; at times oppressively so”) and shows a resolute indifference toward Magda for the first five years of her employment. As the years wear on, though, an intimacy manifests between the two that can only be described as landing somewhere between an endearing mother-daughter relationship and that of a contemptuous love affair. Their story is utterly compelling and often unnerving. Magda turns to Emerence for affirmation, and Emerence doles out her affection for Magda in peculiar, sometimes volatile, acts, eventually making the grand gesture of inviting Magda into her apartment. But things take a turn for the worse and terror ensues when Magda’s career takes off and Emerence falls gravely ill. Szabó discerns the complex nature of human emotion with sensitivity and prowess in this hypnotizing work of art.

A haunting exploration of age, class, love, and loss that demands to be read and read again.

Pub Date: Jan. 27, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-590-17771-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2016

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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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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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