It’s not hard to understand the temptation to rework this oft-told tale, but the result of this exercise is disappointing.

THE CHARMED WIFE

The author of Forty Rooms (2016) takes on Cinderella.

“Cinderella” is one of the most-often-told tales in the world. In this iteration of the familiar story, the heroine has been married to her prince long enough to want to murder him. Grushin is not the first to wonder what comes after happily-ever-after, of course, and she's aware of this. She uses the last stanza of Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella” as an epigram. This may not have been a wise choice, as Sexton’s 10 lines are ultimately more satisfying than Grushin’s 288 pages. This novel occupies an uncomfortable place between realism, postmodernism, and folklore. Part of the appeal of Cinderella—part of the appeal of all folkloric heroines—is that she's a blank screen onto which we can project our own selves and our own desires. This sort of protagonist works for long enough to sustain a fairy tale, but a novel typically requires a protagonist who emerges as a real person. Grushin’s Cinderella has enough of an inner life to make her specific—rather than universal—but not enough to emerge as a fully developed character. There’s an analogous issue of narrative voice. Fairy tales don’t feel like pure exposition because they are set in an eternal past and because they are short. Grushin isn’t the first author to try to refresh this style by adding a surfeit of adjectives and metaphors, but neither is she more successful than her predecessors. Maybe the most noteworthy thing about this novel is that its author has already written a much better one that asks the questions it seems to want to pose. Forty Rooms was, among other things, an extended meditation on what autonomy, identity, and purpose mean for women. It’s also worth noting that when working with—against?—the formal constraints of a story set in Soviet Russia and suburban America, Grushin conjures more magic than she does in the fantasy world of this novel.

It’s not hard to understand the temptation to rework this oft-told tale, but the result of this exercise is disappointing.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-08550-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4926-8272-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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