Perceptive and well-written though marred by its peculiar chronology.

ASTONISH ME

After satirizing privileged WASPs in her prize-winning first novel (Seating Arrangements, 2012), Shipstead investigates another rarefied world: ballet.

When we meet Joan in September 1977, she’s tired of her going-nowhere career in the ballet corps of a prestigious New York company, where she’s primarily known as the discarded lover of star performer Arslan Rusakov. She’s also pregnant after a summer visit to Chicago to seduce her high school pal Jacob. The rest of Part I depicts their tense marriage—scarred by Joan’s bereavement over leaving ballet—from son Harry’s infancy through the mid-1980s. This strong setup is anchored by Shipstead’s sensitive portrait of the couple’s uneasy relationship and their complex friendship with Southern California neighbors Sandy and Gary Wheelock, whose daughter Chloe is Harry’s age. It’s a jolt when Part II jumps back to 1973 in Paris, where Joan is transported by Arslan’s dancing and “wants some piece of the fearsome beauty he has onstage.” We already know she helped him defect from the Soviet Union, so it feels unnecessary to get a detailed account of it and of the subsequent unraveling of their affair in New York, partly because autocratic artistic director Mr. K judges (correctly) that she’s not good enough to dance with him. It takes a while for Part III to regain the lost momentum as Chloe and Harry study ballet, he becomes obsessed with his mother’s connection to Arslan, and it becomes clear that Harry is a major talent. Anyone who hasn’t figured out who Harry’s real father is long before the flashback that jarringly opens Part IV simply hasn’t been paying attention. Shipstead again recovers in excellent final chapters that allow Chloe to emerge from Harry’s shadow, put Harry and Arslan onstage together, and offer tentative hope for Joan and Jacob’s battered marriage. But the denouements provided for the novel’s many well-drawn characters would be more satisfying if readers hadn’t been distracted by flashbacks that serve no compelling artistic purpose.

Perceptive and well-written though marred by its peculiar chronology.

Pub Date: April 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-307-96290-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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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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Why you double-crossing little double crossers! Fiendishly clever.

PRETTY THINGS

The daughter of a grifter plans to fund her mother’s cancer treatment with a revenge con.

Rich people suck, don’t they? Nina Ross found this out in her adolescence, when her romance with Benny Liebling was broken up by his status-obsessed, old-money father, who found them screwing in the guest cottage of the family’s Lake Tahoe estate. Back then, Nina had a future—but she’s since followed her con-artist mother into the family business with the help of a handsome blue-eyed Irish confederate named Lachlan. “Here’s my rule,” Nina tells him. “Only people who have too much, and only people who deserve it.” Of course, he agrees. “We take only what we need.” With her art history background, Nina is usually able to target a few expensive antiques they can lift without the rich dopes even noticing they’re gone. But now that Nina's mother is hovering at death’s door without health insurance, she’s going after the $1 million in cash Benny mentioned was in his father’s safe all those years ago. So back to Lake Tahoe it is. The older Lieblings are dead, and Benny’s in the bin, so it’s his sister Vanessa Liebling who is the target of the complicated caper. Vanessa is a terribly annoying character—“I couldn’t tell you how I went from a few dozen Instagram followers to a half-million. One day, you’re uploading photos of your dog wearing sunglasses; and the next you’re begin flown to Coachella on a private jet with four other social media It Girls…”—but, in fact, you’ll hate everyone in this book. That is surely Brown’s (Watch Me Disappear, 2017, etc.) intention as she’s the one making them natter on this way. She also makes them vomit much more than is normal, whether it’s because they’re poisoning each other or because they’re just so horrified by each other’s behavior. Definitely stay to see how it all turns out.

Why you double-crossing little double crossers! Fiendishly clever.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-47912-3

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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