BLISS

Harry Joy is 39, an ad-man in an unnamed Australian city, who while mowing his lawn one day has a heart attack and dies. Then, nine seconds later, his heart re-catches and he's again alive. But in the meantime, temporarily dead, he's learned a few things. One, that there are such distinct and immutable qualities as Good and Evil; two, that the principalities of Heaven and Hell ("worlds in the afterlife like layer after layer of file pastry") do actually exist. And, in fact, it seems to Harry that he hasn't in fact come back to life but that he has indeed entered Hell. How else to account for frustrated wife Bettina's affair with Harry's partner? Or his daughter Lucy being a Communist? Or his son David being a rapacious money-hungerer with dreams of being a drug-dealer? All these people, Harry figures, must be "Captives" of Hell themselves, "Actors" who've accommodated themselves to do and be dirty in order to please "Those In Charge." And when he returns to the ad agency and proceeds to dismantle it, purging the evil (dropping oil company clients, first off), these same family Captives promptly have him committed to a mental hospital: "Sometimes he saw, the doors had signs such as 'Social Workers' instead of 'Station Master' or 'Waiting Room' but there was, amongst the people he saw, the same melancholy one finds amongst passengers who have just missed the train to the city and know they will be marooned here for the next four hours." But Harry stays minimally afloat—thanks to the presence of a hippie and part-time whore named Honey Barbara. And when they're both released, she and Harry decide to go home to Harry's house—to brood and try to change Hell from within. Carey (The Fat Man In History) handles the impressive and unsettling situation here—the ethical reversals—with deft, cool talent, especially in a raft of very funny (rageful) family scenes. Yet underlying the whole novel is a rather simpleminded message: an ecological cautionary tale in which the villains—advertising, cities, cars—are knocked down stylishly but with little cumulative effect. The first half, then, with its sheen and style, may remind you of Walker Percy and/or Thomas Berger, while the second half drags and repeats. But, even if erratic, this is strong work from a big, growing talent.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1981

ISBN: 0679767193

Page Count: 316

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1981

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

ALL ADULTS HERE

When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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