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

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ECSTASY

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. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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