A 16th-century ghost helps her present-day descendant preserve the past, in a story by American-Israeli Ragen (The Sacrifice of Tamar, 1994, etc.) that’s as much a heartfelt plea for continuity as a family saga. When 74-year-old Catherine da Costa is told that her illness is terminal, she finds herself worrying more about her family’s future than about her own death. Catherine is the only descendant of Hannah Mendes (a real historical figure), who escaped the Spanish Inquisition, did business with kings, and enlarged an already great fortune made from the spice trade. Now the only heirs to whom Catherine can leave the family’s relics—religious objects, Hannah’s Hebrew Bible, a few pages of her memoirs—are her granddaughters Suzanne and Francesca. Catherine’s daughter Janice married out of the faith and shows no interest in the ancestral past, but, unfortunately, the granddaughters aren’t promising material, either: both, in their 20s, are alienated from the family, not religiously observant, have had unsatisfactory relationships, and are still unmarried. Then, while napping in her chair in her Fifth Avenue apartment, Catherine is visited by Hannah’s ghost, who comes up with a plan to ensure the family’s survival. Shamelessly holding out the promise of money, she meets with her granddaughters and asks them to indulge her by going to Europe to track down the remaining pages of Hannah’s own memoirs, begun in 1574. Suzanne, more interested in good causes than family history, and the ever-practical Francesca, not one for the unplanned life, accept reluctantly, but soon find themselves caught up in the search. As the two young women travel, they have their own encounters with Hannah (her story alternates with theirs), and both fall in love with very suitable Sephardic Jews—Gabriel, a doctor who shares Suzanne’s humanitarian concerns, and bookseller Marius, who teaches Francesca to be more carefree. The future assured, Catherine and Hannah can depart in peace. A glossy celebration of culture and family, inevitably a tad schmaltzy but, like Ragen’s previous work, an agreeable enough read.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 1998

ISBN: 0-684-83393-X

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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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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