Clear-eyed and captivating, Olafsson writes effortlessly, seemingly incapable of a dull paragraph or page. His people are...



Icelandic-born Olafsson (The Journey Home, 2000; Absolution, 1994) tells the life story of William Randolph Hearst’s fictional butler—deftly and grippingly.

Even when they’re married around 1910, in Iceland, something is amiss between handsome Kristjan Benediktsson and his lovely bride, Elisabet: Kristjan, the son of a simple fisherman, feels outranked by Elisabet, who performs Mozart on the piano and whose successful father, in import-export, is locally prominent. Still, an effort is made, the couple has four children, and, when Elisabet’s father dies, Kristjan takes over the business (and rescues it, in fact, from the fiscal abyss). But Kristjan likes his business trips to New York only too well (WWI has closed Europe’s markets to him) and likes them even better after he meets the beautiful Klara, Swedish, a dancer, the fiancée of a New York business associate, and—when he falls in love with her—the beginning of a terrible darkness for Kristjan. In 1918, he returns to Reykjavik, intending to stick by his family for keeps—until a letter from Klara , saying she’s pregnant. Without even a goodbye, Kristjan steals away, books ship, reunites with Klara—and later holds her in his arms as she dies following an abortion. And so it is that Kristjan, desolate, fallen so low as to be waiting tables at the Waldorf, catches the eye of Hearst, who so likes the handsome Icelander that he makes him his individual servant whenever he’s at the Waldorf—and then, in 1921, takes him out to San Simeon, where he’ll stay for the next 16 years, trusted and impeccable butler in the great palace that entertains celebrities galore and houses Hearst’s lovely mistress, Marion Davies. And then? Well, it’s now 1937, the Hearst fortune isn’t what it was, and . . . but let the reader find out.

Clear-eyed and captivating, Olafsson writes effortlessly, seemingly incapable of a dull paragraph or page. His people are real, period atmosphere and detail unobtrusively perfect, his novel a gem and small masterpiece.

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-42254-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2003

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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The relationship between a privileged White mom and her Black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a Black boy hoping to go with a White girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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