In this densely detailed, largely opaque book, the novelist leaves his readers as unmoored as his characters.

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TO THE BACK OF BEYOND

A man abandons his family for no discernible reason.

In the latest from Swiss novelist Stamm (Agnes, 2016), Thomas and Astrid are relaxing outside their house shortly after returning from vacation. One of their two children cries out, and one of them must go see what’s the matter. She goes and stays inside. Without premeditation, he waits and then starts walking. And keeps walking. With no chapter divisions, the narrative alternates between the two of them after he leaves, generally around four pages for each, describing what he does and how she feels. It is plain that both of them had been operating on autopilot, doing and saying the same things day after day for years on end. Maybe this was the problem. Maybe this is the human condition. In a rare moment of reflection, Thomas ponders the routine that had been his life, “the faith, the conviction that it was the right thing to do. He too had once formed part of this quiet consensus, he had functioned in the way that was expected of him, without it ever having been discussed.” Now, on impulse, he has freed himself from that consensus in order to walk wherever for however long. Astrid also feels some freedom, along with various other emotions associated with stages of denial and acceptance. She doesn’t quite feel that he is gone, because so much of her own routine remains unchanged. In fact, she felt like she “was making herself Thomas’s accomplice...as though she was joined with him in some secret conspiracy.” She covers for him with the kids and at his work, waiting for him to return, wondering if he will, wondering why he left. They had never argued. Maybe that was the problem. It would seem that there are only two ways that the novel can resolve itself, that either Thomas will return or he won’t, but a Stamm parable is never so cut and dried. Toward the end, “the years had no particular chronology, the journeys no direction, the places stood in no discernible relation to one another.”

In this densely detailed, largely opaque book, the novelist leaves his readers as unmoored as his characters.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-59051-828-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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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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