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.

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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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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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