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A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON

With all the wit and stylistic aplomb we've come to expect of her, Spark casts a withering glance at some fringe characters who people London literary life at mid-century. But the merely odd—goofy publishers, fatuous editors, etc.—takes an evil turn, as this delightful comedy of manners reveals a darker tale of obsessions and revenge. What keeps things relatively light here is Spark's unflappable narrator, a young war widow who proves to be a talented "general do-all" for a number of publishing houses. Though only 28, Mrs. Hawkins is treated as "a matronly goddess of wisdom" both by her colleagues at work and her fellow boarders at a rooming house in So. Kensington. A compulsive advice-giver, this "remarkably reliable woman" also takes on the troubles of others, partly because her own obesity deprives her of a rich private life. All of her problems begin, however, when she lets slip a devastating criticism of one particular literary ne'er-do-well, Hector Bartlett, a hack whom she terms a "pisseur de copie"—"a urinator of journalistic copy." Her refusal to recant this catchy epithet gets her fired from her first job with a failing firm run by a sodden embezzler. Her next employer, the house of Mackintosh & Tooley, hopes to publish the work of Bartlett's mentor, a talented novelist who would just as soon be rid of him. But Mrs. Hawkins, all the while peeling off pounds, refuses to edit Bartlett's execrable manuscript, The Eternal Quest. Though she eventually finds work as managing editor of a highbrow quarterly run by two American refugees from McCarthyism, the slimmed-down Mrs. Hawkins—who now calls herself by her first name, Nancy—discovers that Bartlett is behind a number of strange doings back at the rooming house. A bizarre series of events involving her fellow boarder, a nervous Polish dressmaker, leads to the latter's suicide, the result of Bartlett's psychosexual manipulations, all of which have been unknown to Nancy, upon whom he hoped to wreak ultimate vengeance. A postscript set 30 years later confirms the power of her accurate epithet for the loathsome miscreant. Spark treats the reader to Mrs. Hawkins' common-sensical advice on everything from weight-loss and insomnia to marriage and religion. But the greater pleasure comes from the surprising tidiness of this gently moral tale.

Pub Date: July 18, 1988

ISBN: 9780811214575

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1988

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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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. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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THE RUMOR

Once again, Hilderbrand displays her gift for making us care most about her least likable characters.

Hilderbrand’s latest cautionary tale exposes the toxic—and hilarious—impact of gossip on even the most sophisticated of islands.

Eddie and Grace Pancik are known for their beautiful Nantucket home and grounds, financed with the profits from Eddie’s thriving real estate company (thriving before the crash of 2008, that is). Grace raises pedigreed hens and, with the help of hunky landscape architect Benton Coe, has achieved a lush paradise of fowl-friendly foliage. The Panciks’ teenage girls, Allegra and Hope, suffer invidious comparisons of their looks and sex appeal, although they're identical twins. The Panciks’ friends the Llewellyns (Madeline, a blocked novelist, and her airline-pilot husband, Trevor) invested $50,000, the lion’s share of Madeline’s last advance, in Eddie’s latest development. But Madeline, hard-pressed to come up with catalog copy, much less a new novel, is living in increasingly straightened circumstances, at least by Nantucket standards: she can only afford $2,000 per month on the apartment she rents in desperate hope that “a room of her own” will prime the creative pump. Construction on Eddie’s spec houses has stalled, thanks to the aforementioned crash. Grace, who has been nursing a crush on Benton for some time, gives in and a torrid affair ensues, which she ill-advisedly confides to Madeline after too many glasses of Screaming Eagle. With her agent and publisher dropping dire hints about clawing back her advance and Eddie “temporarily” unable to return the 50K, what’s a writer to do but to appropriate Grace’s adultery as fictional fodder? When Eddie is seen entering her apartment (to ask why she rented from a rival realtor), rumors spread about him and Madeline, and after the rival realtor sneaks a look at Madeline’s rough draft (which New York is hotly anticipating as “the Playboy Channel meets HGTV”), the island threatens to implode with prurient snark. No one is spared, not even Hilderbrand herself, “that other Nantucket novelist,” nor this magazine, “the notoriously cranky Kirkus.”

Once again, Hilderbrand displays her gift for making us care most about her least likable characters.

Pub Date: June 16, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-33452-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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