Plot summary fails to convey the spirit of this creative flight of fancy; farce meets disaster in a novel that illuminates...

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THE LAST ILLUSION

An audaciously ambitious novel that teeters along a tightrope but never falls off.

Following her well-received debut (Sons and Other Flammable Objects, 2007), this Iranian-American novelist returns with what on the surface is a coming-of-age story about a boy who was raised as a bird, based on a myth from the Persian Book of Kings (which finds its way into the story within this story) about an Icarus who becomes a great warrior and hero. The protagonist of this novel is neither. His name is Zal (it rhymes with “fall,” which is what happens to those who cannot fly), and he was born in Iran, very pale and blond in a country of darker skins, to a mother who considered him a mistake and a “White Demon.” His birth sparked his “mother’s disintegration into a crazy bird lady,” and she raised him in a menagerie, as a bird. The tone then shifts, or slides, from once-upon-a-time fable into something closer to American realism, as the setting shifts to New York City around the turn of the millennium. Zal has been adopted by a behavioral analyst who wants to help him develop the human side of his adolescent personality and guide him into adulthood. Zal learns to “keep the bird in him, any bird in him, so deep within himself that it resurfaced only rarely”—though he does retain an appetite for insects and develops a crush on a particularly comely canary (“tiny but still voluptuous, round in all the right places”). In a coincidence that strains credulity, he happens to meet an artist who works with dead birds, who becomes his first love and is something of a strange bird herself. She suffers from anorexia, panic attacks and premonitions, the last of which proves crucial and tragic. And he encounters an illusionist who sparks the novel’s title, planning to make New York disappear: “Not New York, exactly, but the New Yorkness of New York.”

Plot summary fails to convey the spirit of this creative flight of fancy; farce meets disaster in a novel that illuminates what it means to be human, normal and in love.

Pub Date: May 13, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62040-304-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: April 10, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2014

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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MY DARK VANESSA

The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled...

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

A riveting, potentially redemptive story of modern American suburbia that reads almost like an ancient Greek tragedy.

When the Whitmans, a nouveau riche white family, move into a sprawling, newly built house next door to Valerie Alston-Holt, a black professor of forestry and ecology, and her musically gifted, biracial 18-year-old son, Xavier, in a modest, diverse North Carolina neighborhood of cozy ranch houses on wooded lots, it is clear from the outset things will not end well. The neighborhood itself, which serves as the novel’s narrator and chorus, tells us so. The story begins on “a Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them,” we are informed in the book’s opening paragraph. “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” The exact nature of the tragedy that has been foretold and questions of blame come into focus gradually as a series of events is set inexorably in motion when the Whitmans’ cloistered 17-year-old daughter, Juniper, encounters Xavier. The two teenagers tumble into a furtive, pure-hearted romance even as Xavier’s mom and Juniper’s stepfather, Brad, a slick operator who runs a successful HVAC business and has secrets of his own, lock horns in a legal battle over a dying tree. As the novel builds toward its devastating climax, it nimbly negotiates issues of race and racism, class and gentrification, sex and sexual violence, environmental destruction and other highly charged topics. Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018, etc.) empathetically conjures nuanced characters we won’t soon forget, expertly weaves together their stories, and imbues the plot with a sense of inevitability and urgency. In the end, she offers an opportunity for catharsis as well as a heartfelt, hopeful call to action.

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled times.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-23727-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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