Of a piece with the recent works of Vikram Seth, and reminiscent at times of García Márquez—altogether a pleasure.

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THE TOSS OF A LEMON

Sprawling, intergenerational novel of life in South India in the first half of the 20th century.

Drawing on tales from her grandmother’s life, debut novelist Viswanathan spins the story of Sivakami, ten years old when we—and her future husband, who soon comes a-courting—meet her. Soon, married, she is 13, “and misses her mother’s hands in her hair each morning, and the little puppy her brothers had found a few weeks before she left, and so she weeps a little each day.” Her husband, 11 years older and already a widower, is a good man; he is an astrologer, a healer, spiritually inclined and a Brahmin (the last a very useful distinction in a class-ordered society). If Hanumarathnam has a fault it’s that he’s too quick to issue detailed instructions on all matters related to managing the household. At 18, with two children, Sivakami is a widow herself. “It is incredible to Sivakami,” writes Viswanathan, “that Hanumarathnam spent years preparing her for his passing,” but so he has done with all those instructions, and she is now ready to lead a life of comparative independence and self-reliance. It has not always been made easy for her, but she has raised her children and instructed her household to be tolerant and hardworking—models, in other words, for the independent, postcolonial India that is in the making, capable of rising above prejudice and the class divisions that divide the nation. Viswanathan narrates from the point of view of a modern Indian woman raised in the New World, looking back across decades and oceans and “lands and languages I know but that are not my own.” Her narrative, refreshingly, is free of anachronism, and she has a pleasing way of engaging the reader’s senses—not least with some mouth-watering descriptions of “dry and wet curries, pacchadis of yogurt and cucumber…deep-fried patties of lentil and chili,” and other such delicacies.

Of a piece with the recent works of Vikram Seth, and reminiscent at times of García Márquez—altogether a pleasure.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-15-101533-7

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2008

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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