RHONDA THE RUBBER WOMAN

A posthumous first novel offers a refreshingly intelligent and wry take on a girl growing up with a less than ideal mother in small-town Pennsylvania during the late '30s and '40s. Nancy Sayers never knew who her father was because her mother Georgia found life easier if she ignored harsh realities. The gossip about her affair with married coworker Carl, who fathered Nancy, didn't worry her as much as the way she missed him when he moved away. Other men succeeded him, and Georgia was soon known as the town slut—which was no small embarrassment to Nancy, of course, who was often harassed at school. Now 17 and about to embark on a new life in Philadelphia, she looks back over her growing-up years with Georgia, spent largely in a small apartment above the local drug store. Unlike so many protagonists of the genre, Nancy behaves with consistent smarts, even if it means coming to grips with her own romantic proclivities or accepting Georgia for what she is. When Eddie, the carnival novelty salesman, moves in, Nancy, mortified and angry, goes to live with Aunt Cora, who is all the things Georgia is not. At school, Nancy, an avid reader, aspiring poet, and gymnast, endures her classmates' teasing by compiling lists of insults that she has memorized. When she's back again with Georgia, after Cora's husband comes home from WW II, Eddie gets Nancy a weeklong gig as Rhonda the Rubber Woman, the contortionist at a visiting show. Her career doesn't pan out, nor does her teenage love affair with handsome Bob, for reasons she discovers only much later, but a brief encounter with Philadelphia's intelligentsia gives a new sense of direction and purpose to her life. And a surprisingly maternal act by Georgia helps Nancy forgive and understand her. A touching coming-of-age novel both wise and generous.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1998

ISBN: 1-57962-003-5

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Permanent Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1997

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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

THE WINTER GUEST

An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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