Despite Mercier’s (Perlmann’s Silence, 2012, etc.) lyricism and occasional emotional acuity, the book's depiction of...

LEA

Two men from Bern who can no longer trust their hands—one is a recently retired surgeon who can't hold a scalpel without trembling and the other can't hold a steering wheel without contemplating suicide—meet by chance in a cafe in Provence.

Both are also wifeless fathers to grown daughters from whom they are estranged, or worse. Adrian Herzog, the novel’s narrator, soon learns that his new acquaintance, Martijn van Vliet, is reeling from his daughter Lea’s death. The strangers quickly bond as van Vliet tells the story of Lea’s descent due to an unnamed mental illness, beginning with the time the father and then-8-year-old girl encountered an enigmatic masked woman playing the violin in a train station. As they listened, van Vliet grew convinced that this woman’s playing had managed to pierce the armor of grief his young daughter had worn since her mother’s death a year earlier. He concludes that in this moment a "new will had formed" inside her, a will toward life, betraying her intense desire to learn to play the violin. Her knack for the instrument develops into an obsession for the pair and eventually a glamorous career for Lea—that is, until her breakdown. Van Viet tells his story with the fear that what he once considered the only way for his daughter to overcome her grief may well have been what destroyed her. Above all, he's desperate to believe in his own innocence as a father and finds in Herzog an exceedingly eager and compassionate listener. The relationship that develops between the two men is well-wrought and their subtle affinities numerous, but the book lacks a probing analysis of the father-daughter relationship. Van Vliet admits that he imagined his daughter "a fairy by nature," and her characterization is reminiscent of Romantic tropes: a precocious prodigy, a frigid and fragile "countess…unaware of her aura." Needless to say, she doesn’t speak much in her father’s tale, apart from uttering imperious commands in French. The moments later meant to signify her mental break fall flat, even in scenes meant to depict her rage. This lack is exacerbated by moments of sexist and racist outbursts from the protagonist. For instance, van Vliet says of a co-worker: "I destroyed Ruth Adamek, who had never forgiven me for not falling for her miniskirt," and frequently refers to his daughter’s psychologist as "the Maghrebi" who would cast him "black, Arab looks."

Despite Mercier’s (Perlmann’s Silence, 2012, etc.) lyricism and occasional emotional acuity, the book's depiction of suffering does little to elaborate its closing observation that "there is unhappiness of a dimension so great that it is unbearable."

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2166-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2017

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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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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