A thoughtfully executed tale that perceptively dramatizes the tension between the demands of love and commerce.

THE WORK OF ART

In this romance set in the early 19th century, a young woman finds herself pursued by an uncouth and relentless duke who’ll stop at nothing to possess her. 

Once her grandfather dies, Phyllida Satterthwaite is left alone in the world as well as virtually penniless—both of her parents died shortly after she was born. She’s taken into the care of her uncle, Edgar Townsend, who lets her modest estate in the country and brings her to London to pair her with a husband. Unfortunately, the duke of Moreland takes an avid interest in her, a man so notorious for his maniacal pursuit of objects of beauty he’s nicknamed “the Collector.” Phyllida, now his quarry, becomes known as the “Work of Art.” The duke is an unreservedly unsavory human being—he beats dogs and is suspected of murdering his wife. Phyllida refuses his hand in marriage, but the duke makes it clear he never asked for it in the first place. Edgar likewise views their union as a financial transaction, one for which the duke paid handsomely. She turns to Capt. Arthur Heywood, a friendly acquaintance, for help, and he chivalrously offers to wed her, a “marriage in name only” that rescues her from the duke’s salacious attention. But the duke is not so easily defeated, and the new pair is threatened by the prospect of his “swift and brutal retaliation.” The duke remains a hyperbolically unsubtle caricature in an otherwise intelligently nuanced novel by Matthews (A Modest Independence, 2019). The author seamlessly combines a suspenseful tale and a soaring romance, the plot by turns sweetly moving and dramatically stirring. The relationship between Phyllida and Arthur is especially well crafted—what was initially a partnership borne out of practicality and mutual respect slowly shows promise of blossoming into something more transcendent. Occasionally, Matthews can be a bit heavy-handed with her narrative commentary; for example, she feels the need, after repeatedly making the point that the duke sees Phyllida as a trophy rather than a person, to tell readers that she really isn’t: “But she was no painting. She was a human being.” Nevertheless, the story as a whole is filled with tenderness and intrigue and is sure to delight lovers of the genre. 

A thoughtfully executed tale that perceptively dramatizes the tension between the demands of love and commerce.

Pub Date: July 23, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-73305-691-5

Page Count: 390

Publisher: Perfectly Proper Press

Review Posted Online: July 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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