Giovanna is a wonderful character full of human contradictions, but the novel bogs down once she becomes a conventional...

THE GOLDEN HOUR

In Wurtele’s first novel a foolish young Italian girl matures into a caring woman and develops political awareness during World War II.

The daughter of wealthy Tuscan estate owners whose home has largely been requisitioned by German officers, Giovanna Bellini is a pampered 17-year-old during the German occupation in 1943. Having graduated from the local Catholic academy, she grudgingly helps the nuns tutor refugee children. Although her older brother Giorgio has run away to join the resistance, she also begins a flirtation with Klaus, a married German officer who she notes is an engineer and not a member of the SS. Wurtele meticulously delineates Giovanna’s giddy crush on Klaus, as well as her conflicting self-justification and guilt while purposely keeping Klaus’ motives ambiguous so that as events unfold the reader never knows his role—despite the sense of responsibility Giovanna assumes. After a nun catches the two having a rendezvous and tells Giovanna’s parents, she arranges one last assignation during which Klaus gets angry when she breaks things off. Meanwhile Giorgio enlists her help in smuggling food and supplies to the partisans. Her work is supposed to be secret, yet she involves an ever-widening circle of friends in the effort. Incredibly, none leaks a word to the enemy. Through Giorgio she meets Mario, an injured partisan who shares a similar upper-class Italian background except that he happens to be Jewish. Giovanna, already doubting that she wants the conventional, safe life her loving but narrow-minded parents expect for her, becomes aware of her own ignorance about the plight of Italian Jews and of her own father’s self-serving if genteel anti-Semitism. Mario’s injury becomes infected. With help from an unexpected source, she finds him a safe hiding place to recover, then steals him life-saving penicillin from the secret clinic run by a neighboring marchesa, Giovanna’s moral mentor. Love also blossoms, the American forces approach, but risks remain high.

Giovanna is a wonderful character full of human contradictions, but the novel bogs down once she becomes a conventional noble heroine. 

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-451-23708-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: New American Library

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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