Beneath the sepia tint, fully imagined lives.

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THE FIRST DESIRE

A Buffalo family personifies quiet desperation in this first novel by Iowa Short Fiction Award winner Reisman (House Fires, 1999).

Abraham, a dour jeweler, is the widower-patriarch of the Cohen family, who occupy a rambling house on tree-lined Lancaster Street, a powerfully traditional Jewish home that Abraham’s four daughters and one son struggle to escape from with varying degrees of success. Ponderous, incantatory prose and painstaking attention to mundane domestic detail, not to mention much interior musing, slow the narrative but deepen our identification with the characters’ plights. Taking place in the 1930s and ’40s, the story is told from the points of view of second daughter Sadie, who finds provisional refuge in marriage to a dentist; Goldie, the oldest, who immigrated late, with her mother, from Ukraine and is hence a stranger to her father; middle child Jo, a latent lesbian who rebels against being forced into the role of surrogate mother when Goldie bolts; and baby brother Irving, spoiled from birth, perennially torn between pressures to conform to the bourgeois values of a tight-knit Jewish community and the temptations of loose women and gambling. The Depression, along with the pre- and post-WWII eras, are evoked vividly, as is the sense of a vise gradually tightening upon Abe’s children as one after another they either accept their lot as family servants or act out their frustrations—in the meantime competing to escape the threatening, feared, and imprisoning burden of youngest daughter Celia’s mental “peculiarity” (in the parlance of the day). Abe’s mistress, Lillian, longs for marriage but is ultimately thankful for not having been dragged into the “morass” of the Cohen household. Goldie’s self-realization as she slips off the coils of her hometown is the only hopeful note in this grimly purposeful tale, where the fog of seething resentments (Niagara is a recurring symbol) can’t entirely obscure sporadic gleams of familial love.

Beneath the sepia tint, fully imagined lives.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-375-42308-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2004

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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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