Historical fiction hampered by a 21st-century perspective on Victorian values.

ALICE I HAVE BEEN

Benjamin’s debut imagines Alice Liddell’s experiences before and particularly after Lewis Carroll immortalized her.

She was born in 1852, daughter of the dean of Christ Church College, Oxford; she died in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. But Alice’s life reached its literary apex in 1862, when on a summer afternoon Oxford mathematics don Charles Dodgson entertained the Liddell sisters with a tale of Alice falling down the rabbit’s hole, later to be the inaugural event in his hugely successful book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This well-documented afternoon and the girl’s charged relationship with Dodgson are described by the author as defining experiences for Alice, both magical and traumatic, overshadowing the subsequent 70 years. Benjamin’s adult Alice grapples with a repressed memory; her one-dimensional Dodgson is a daydreaming, stuttering loser. The relationship offered here, that of a pedophile and his victim, is too predictable and simplistic; the sexual mores of Victorian England and of Dodgson himself were more complicated. The novel becomes richer and increasingly assured after the “break,” when Dodgson is forbidden to see Alice again. She grows to maturity in Oxford’s culturally privileged enclave, is wooed by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Leopold (barred from marrying her in part because of the unspoken, lingering scandal concerning Dodgson), then finally marries and bears three boys, two of them killed in World War I. In the end, this rigid Victorian lady, at a loss in the 20th century, recovers her memory and finally finds what her life has lacked—acceptance and self-love.

Historical fiction hampered by a 21st-century perspective on Victorian values.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-385-34413-5

Page Count: 356

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2009

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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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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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