A readable but reductive and rather off-putting look at relationships, whether new or old.

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THE LEARNING CURVE

Four roommates at a liberal arts college respond differently to the charisma of a married visiting professor with a murky past.

There’s not much good sex in this second novel from Berman (Perennials, 2017) but a fair amount of bad. As the story opens, 21-year-old Fiona Larkin, who rooms with Liv, Lula, and Marley, all seniors at Buchanan College in Pennsylvania, is advised not to spend the night with a male student who has been accused of rape. But needy Fiona sleeps with him anyway, an ugly experience, typical of the kind of poor choices she’s currently making in the aftermath of her younger sister Helen’s sudden death and her family’s disintegration. (Fiona and Helen also featured in Perennials.) And it’s not only Fiona who arrives with a deep backstory. Lula is a rich, black, half-Jewish femme lesbian, and Liv is the product of a Japanese mother and a wealthy, alcoholic American father who possibly abused her. To this mix Berman adds a catalyst, Oliver Ash, a teacher of literature and creative writing who brings to Buchanan a Holocaust background and his own history of dubious sexual conduct. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Ash’s wife, Simone, is tending their 5-year-old son, Henri, while studying the sexual slavery of concentration camp prisoners. Certain themes, it becomes obvious, are the tent pegs holding up this long novel, which partly presents itself as a saga of female campus friendship but also wants to address weighty contemporary topics. The result is a restless, relatively eventless tale: Liv loses a boyfriend and develops a passing crush on Oliver; Fiona grapples with her insecurities, guilt, and a matching crush; Liv and Fiona take a doomed trip to Paris; Simone faces up to her feelings. The learning curve, it seems, is an often gloomy and incremental business.

A readable but reductive and rather off-putting look at relationships, whether new or old.

Pub Date: May 28, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-58934-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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