The line between fact and fiction in Eleanor’s world is annoyingly blurred, but her oddball escapades help Friedmann...

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A LITTLE BIT RUINED

The heroine of Eleanor Rushing (1999) remains an unreliable, possibly delusional narrator, but Hurricane Katrina forces her to come to terms with reality and change.

In her hometown of New Orleans during the summer of 2005, Eleanor whiles away the hours watching reality TV shows featuring reconstructive surgery, a preoccupation seemingly fueled by ongoing ambiguity about her parents’ deaths. Eleanor contends that they died in a plane crash, but her family’s housekeeper, Naomi—still an important force in her life—says it was a car crash, which also gave Eleanor a scar that she claims not to be able to see. Men too are a complicated force in Eleanor’s world. She’s still in love with preacher Maxim Walters, but she hasn’t spoken to him in seven years; she’s waiting for his wife to die. Meanwhile, after her sometime suitor Theo introduces them at a benefit, she becomes infatuated with plastic surgeon Dr. Richard Kimball. Richard agrees to fix up Eleanor’s face, but she isn’t satisfied and wants work on her breasts, plus liposuction on her hips and thighs. When Hurricane Katrina hits, most of Eleanor’s acquaintances evacuate, but she is determined to stay, making a dangerous trek to Naomi’s shotgun house in the largely black neighborhood known as Pigeontown. Diabetic neighbor Miss Leona comes to stay with them and has a medical emergency, which is enough to propel Eleanor into action. With Miss Leona’s best interests theoretically in mind, she tracks down Richard in Houston, where she spends most of her time convincing him to perform more surgery on her. This time, though, she isn’t happy with the results, considering herself as ruined as her beloved hometown.

The line between fact and fiction in Eleanor’s world is annoyingly blurred, but her oddball escapades help Friedmann poignantly portray New Orleans’ desperation.

Pub Date: April 1, 2007

ISBN: 1-59376-145-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Shoemaker & Hoard

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2007

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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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