UNDERWORLD

An overwrought and highly precious first novel by the Oxford don and essayist whose previous works (Where I Fell to Earth, 1990, etc.) displayed a rather florid imagination reluctantly reined in. Here, he pulls out all the stops. On the edge of an unnamed city at an unimaginable future date, gangs of outcasts and criminals live in a desolate valley, where they traffic in stolen goods and prey upon such unfortunate commuters who wander in by mistake. One of these, a prosperous and rather obnoxious businessman, is robbed, killed, and dismembered by a pack of hooligans who wrap the severed head in a bundle and play football with it. The crime is witnessed by Wilf, a local boy who subsequently flees into the city, where he is adopted by Kate, an artist who is drawn to the valley by the same violence and desperation that drove Wilf away. Kate's boyfriend, Paul, is an architect who dreams of creating a new city in the valley, and the two prevail upon Wilf to bring them into a world that he was only too happy to abandon. A deranged Jehovah's Witness, a sadistic thief with chronic indigestion, a gasworks whose perpetual flames illumine the valley at night, and a subterranean tunnel that is the locus of much misfortune are a few of the more obvious elements of this tale, in which the allegory is laid on with a trowel. The pity of it all is that Conrad's prose is lucid and engaging enough to make coherence of theme and progression of narrative seem unnecessary luxuries—for a spell. But the aimlessness of the story eventually becomes an aggravation. Pointless and artificial: the characters and situations are contrived in the extreme and entirely unconvincing. Too many points are being made with too little finesse by a narrator whose tone throughout is far more academic than imaginative.

Pub Date: May 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-671-75884-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1992

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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