An entertaining but clumsily executed revenge tale.

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PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

A ruthless nemesis stalks two lovers in this novel set in 19th-century Germany.

Frau Sandenberg is a strict and unforgiving mistress. The wife of a wealthy landowner who oversees the village of Gluckmutter in Holstein, she firmly believes in the separation of the working and noble classes, and accordingly treats her servants as if they’re less than human. One of those servants, a young washerwoman named Gretchen Haager, internally rebels against this treatment. Gretchen dearly misses her large, boisterous family, and only went into service to save it the cost of feeding yet another mouth. But when she receives a letter with the news that her mother is dying, and Frau Sandenberg (whom she thinks of as “the Villafrau”) refuses to let her visit her family, Gretchen finally decides to defy her mistress and abandon her post. In the same village, a young man named Georg Schillingberg has just returned home after deserting his position in the Prussian army. Georg simply doesn’t believe in Prussia’s dreams of European military domination, and war strays even further from his mind when he happens on Gretchen in a moment of anguish and falls in love with her at first sight. But the watchful eyes of Frau Sandenberg witness the lovers’ meeting—a stroke of bad luck that seals their fate. For no matter where they go or how they disguise themselves, Gretchen and Georg inevitably (and often improbably) become targets of the Villafrau’s wrath. In this series opener, Florence (Out of the Shadow, 2018, etc.) effectively maintains the story’s drama, constantly placing new obstacles in the protagonists’ paths and setting the entire saga against an intriguing backdrop of vast national changes. But the actual telling of the tale significantly hinders its promising structure. The omniscient narrator can’t seem to make up its mind what tone or time period to portray, marrying formal language like “Gretchen attended to her morning ablutions” with such colloquial, anachronistic phrases as “I was doing my thing” and “I’m glad we sorted that out.” And because the dialogue features characters bluntly stating the book’s themes, the complexity of their thoughts and motivations is lost.   

An entertaining but clumsily executed revenge tale.  

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5043-1002-4

Page Count: 259

Publisher: BalboaPress

Review Posted Online: Dec. 28, 2018

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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