Delicately rendered characters inform a richly textured family portrait.

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AN ELEGANT WOMAN

A family's myths become a treasured legacy.

“How is a person made?” the young Katherine Stewart asks her older sister, Tommy. “I mean a life,” she adds, “growing up, understanding who you are and what you want. How does that happen?” That is the essential, vexing question that pervades McPhee’s thoughtful, gently told novel about the ways a family’s past shapes each generation. Tommy’s granddaughter Isadora finds the stories irresistible: A writer, she bases her novels on biographies of real people, just as McPhee has done here, drawing on her own family history. Central to the novel are Tommy and Katherine, cowed by poverty, neglected by their impetuous mother, Glenna, and longing to escape a circumscribed life. Throughout their childhood, they find themselves “elaborating and embellishing” colorful family fables, handed down by Glenna, until both felt that they “had lived not only their brief lives, but also in memories that began long before they were born.” Their own lives change dramatically in 1910 when Glenna leaves her adulterous husband, taking her daughters from their home in Ohio to Montana, where she cajoles and flirts her way into being hired as a teacher—pretending to be single, soon foisting her girls on a kindhearted childless couple. She returns after 2 years, sweeping up her daughters once again to accompany her as she continually reinvents herself. As the sisters grow up, they confront the question Katherine asked as a child: how to know who you are. McPhee underscores her characters’ evolving identities by playing with names: Tommy was born Thelma; Katherine calls herself Kate and, later, Pat; and these names, too, change—sometimes confusingly—as the narrative spins out and each sister grapples, more or less successfully, with the possibility of self-creation. “Sometimes it feels good to pretend,” Tommy reflects, “to be the person you desire, to believe you can have what you please, that what you say is the truth.”

Delicately rendered characters inform a richly textured family portrait.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-7957-0

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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MY DARK VANESSA

The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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