Readers will enjoy forming their own opinions on who was really the victim here.

The early years of thwarted artist Alma Mahler, a still-controversial woman.

Bourgeois bohemian dilettante? Genius foiled by early-20th-century gender bias and bad romantic decisions? These historical appraisals receive equal airing in Sharratt’s (The Dark Lady’s Mask, 2016, etc.) thought-provoking novel, which takes Alma, nee Schindler, from age 19 to 31. Beautiful and musically gifted, Alma is viewed by her mother and stepfather as ripe for the marriage market: they refuse to allow her to enter a conservatory and only grudgingly agree to her taking counterpoint lessons from composer Alex von Zemlinsky. The two fall in love, appearing to be true soul mates, but her parents won't allow her to marry a Jew. They reverse this position when Alma, at 22, transfers her infatuation to the much older and more successful Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, director of the Viennese Court Opera. Although Mahler’s proposal comes with the condition that Alma forego composing, she marries him anyway. Over the years, as Alma gives birth to two daughters, the marriage founders. Alma regrets the loss of her own creative soul, and Mahler grows increasingly obsessed with work, treating her more as hausfrau than muse. Vienna’s entrenched anti-Semitism drives the couple to New York, where Mahler escapes European critical ridicule to enjoy acclaim and riches, first as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and then of the newly reorganized New York Philharmonic. Their eldest child’s death from diphtheria and Alma’s subsequent miscarriages further strain the relationship, particularly since Mahler seems to blame Alma for these tragedies. Crises mount as Alma takes a rest cure for a nervous breakdown and Mahler is diagnosed with a heart condition. At the sanatorium, Alma meets 27-year-old architect Walter Gropius, and once more she confuses her desire for self-realization with other desires. Sharratt is adept at presenting the internal conflicts that dog her protagonist, with the close third-person narration capturing her often skewed perspective. The known biographical facts suggest that Alma could never reconcile her ambitions with her era’s constraints on women. In Sharratt’s bracing portrayal, though, Alma’s limits seem largely self-imposed.

Readers will enjoy forming their own opinions on who was really the victim here.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-544-80089-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018


The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992



The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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