“This need. This derangement. Will it never stop?,” Roth’s most sexually importunate figure demands of himself. Probably...

THE DYING ANIMAL

The recent creative surge that has produced some of Roth’s best fiction continues with this intense short novel narrated by David Kepesh (protagonist also of The Breast and The Professor of Desire), who’s a more highly eroticized counterpart of Roth’s other serial alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.

The subject is Kepesh’s reluctant arrival at the threshold of old age and his unquenched vulnerability to the spectacle of sex, to which he wryly refers as “the imbecility of lust” and “the chaos of eros.” Its specific focus is his memory, eight years after the fact, of his consuming affair with Consuela Castillo, a beautiful Cuban-American student and the last of a series of younger mistresses who had assuaged his aging for more than 40 years, dating back to the early years of his long-ago (only) marriage. Kepesh’s detailed anatomy (no other word will really do) of Consuela’s charms stimulates brief memory glimpses of other women (some companionable divorcées of mature years, others embodiments of the swinging ’60s whose boldness simultaneously delighted and puzzled him), as well as more discursive (and labored) reflections on “Lord of Misrule” Thomas Morton of Puritan Massachusetts’s “Merry Mount” colony; Kepesh’s tortured relationship with his middle-aged son Kenny (another victim of sex, to whom his vagrant father is a dead ringer for Dostoevsky’s lustful patriarch, Karamazov pére), and—in the most potent scene here—the last hours of Kepesh’s closest male friend, an adulterous poet who incarnates man the “dying animal” (a phrase from a Yeats poem) clinging to the last fumbling vestiges of the sexuality that enables him to deny death. Roth then struggles, with mixed success, to pull these strands together in the climax, which occurs on the cusp of the recent millennium, as Consuela returns to him, to confront the fact of her own mortality.

“This need. This derangement. Will it never stop?,” Roth’s most sexually importunate figure demands of himself. Probably not—and we’ll probably be treated to further ruminations on why this should be so in a future David Kepesh novel.

Pub Date: May 18, 2001

ISBN: 0-618-13587-1

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2001

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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