Sometimes gripping but scuppered by an unbalanced plot that toggles between dull and outlandish.

WATER IS WIDER

A young girl runs away to find her missing father, and an aging proofreader tries to find a foothold in life following the death of her mother in McKeon’s (A Balm in Gilead, 2014) novel.

Phoebe is 11 years old and lives with her stepmother, Adele, and her younger brother, Bobby. Her father has recently disappeared from the family home without explanation. Adele passes off his disappearance as an “unexpected trip.” When Phoebe finds a postcard from Connecticut that she believes to be from her father, although it’s unsigned and in an unfamiliar script, she begins to suspect foul play. When she tries to extract the truth from an agitated Adele, her stepmother locks her in a closet. Phoebe escapes and sets out for Connecticut alone in hope of finding her dad. Her journey intertwines with the seemingly unrelated story of Sidney, a 51-year-old spinster who is grieving her late mother. Sidney works as a proofreader at a struggling publishing house, Poppy Press. She worries about being laid off as parts of her office building grow eerily empty. One enduring presence is J.T., the creepy Poppy Press maintenance man who has recognized Sidney as a fellow outsider and chosen her as his confidant. As the press slides toward bankruptcy, J.T.’s paranoia intensifies, and his actions become all the more disturbing. As in McKeon’s previous novel, much of the intrigue here is generated by how or if her characters’ lives will intertwine. Phoebe’s story is the more engaging of the two, and the need to discover what happens to this vulnerable young girl who’s hunting for her father alone makes for compelling reading at first. But her time spent on the road is overly protracted, and the most exciting moments involve stealing toast from an unsuspecting couple who are planning to have breakfast outdoors and hiding from a stranger in a church. While Phoebe’s adventure begins with promise but rapidly loses momentum, Sidney’s story is comparatively dull at the offset, dealing with the drudgeries of office life. The author overcompensates for this with a dramatic, wildly implausible denouement. The prose, however, is evocative and descriptively sharp: “[Phoebe] squinted at the sun as it glittered on suddenly emerald lawns and gawked at trees and bushes covered in delicate blooms. She began to stop just to breathe in the fragrant air.” McKeon also succeeds in tantalizing the reader until the novel’s close with the reasons behind Phoebe’s father’s disappearance. But this doesn’t overcome a plot that lacks balance and plausibility; for example, when Adele reports Phoebe’s absence, it seems unlikely that the police would display such indifference toward an 11-year-old going missing, immediately presuming “that her father took her.” McKeon is a talented writer with the ability to hold her audience in suspense, but readers of her debut novel will find this a comparatively less rewarding journey.

Sometimes gripping but scuppered by an unbalanced plot that toggles between dull and outlandish.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-9904338-4-2

Page Count: 316

Publisher: White Bird Publishing

Review Posted Online: Dec. 2, 2019

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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