Like its characters, risk averse.

MAD DASH

Two bourgeois bohemians shake up their tepid marriage, achieving only stasis in Gaffney’s (The Goodbye Summer, 2004, etc.) innocuous latest.

It hits Dash Bateman at another interminable faculty soiree: Her husband of 20 years, Andrew, associate history professor at tiny Mason-Dixon College in D.C., is a crashing bore. Not only does he say “em” instead of “um” though he’s not British, he’s a hypochondriac, beset by allergies. When he won’t let her keep a puppy someone has abandoned in the doorway of their townhouse, Dash and dog flee to the Bateman’s pond-side country cottage. At first, Andrew is too preoccupied with campus politics to register Dash’s absence. He could win a promotion to full professor and department chair if only he’d compromise his liberal leanings by helping a right-wing colleague. Raven-haired, wasp-tongued academic Elizabeth appeals to Andrew’s baser instincts as she tries to enlist him in her Machiavellian plots. Dash studies muskrats, photographs butterflies and gets embroiled in the lives of Shevlin, the cottage handyman, his wife Cottie, a recovering heart patient, and their hunky son-in-law Owen, clearly a salt-of-the-earth foil to Andrew. Owen is not only indispensable at closet building and kitchen-cabinet refinishing, he single-handedly works an organic farm and cattle ranch, plying Dash with duck eggs and homespun bromides. Dash commutes to Washington to run her photography studio with the help of new assistant Greta, who reminds her of herself at 25, when she was (improbably) a spiky haired punkette. Preternaturally calm Chloe, the Batemans’ daughter, would mediate her parents’ estrangement if only she could identify its source. Her bafflement is shared by a couples counselor, but readers will recognize in the separation a transparent plot device: Errant spouses are tempted by infidelity, though it’s obvious neither will succumb. A trip to the hospital occasioned by folksy Cottie’s arrhythmia and Andrew’s not-so-imaginary affliction is enough to corral the principals for the inevitable happy and edifying denouement.

Like its characters, risk averse.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-307-38211-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Shaye Areheart/Harmony

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2007

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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