Manipulative but moving, for readers who don’t mind having their strings pulled.

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THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY

Those with the patience to accompany the protagonist on this meandering journey will receive an emotional payoff at the end.

The debut novel by an award-winning British radio playwright (and actor) offers an allegory that requires many leaps of faith, while straddling the line between the charming and cloying (as well as the comic and melodramatic). The title character has recently retired from his office job at a brewery, lives with a wife who hasn’t loved him for decades—since their intelligent, perhaps disturbed son sparked her estrangement from her husband—and appears destined to live his life in everyday limbo until the grave. Then, one day, he receives a letter from a female co-worker with whom he had once been close but hasn’t been in contact for 20 years. She is dying from cancer and has written to let him know, to say goodbye. Without planning or preparation, he embarks on the title’s “unlikely pilgrimage,” somehow believing that if he can walk the hundreds of miles over the many months it will take him, she will remain alive to welcome him. On his journey, he meets a bunch of characters, becomes something of a celebrity and learns a little bit more about the meaning of life. These lessons are articulated in homilies such as “you could be ordinary and attempt something extraordinary,” and “Maybe it’s what the world needs. A little less sense, and a little more faith.” Maybe, but if such sentiments seem akin to those from one of Mitch Albom’s bestselling parables, the novel’s evocation of everyday British reticence, heartbreak and wonder occasionally suggest the depths of the great Graham Swift. The final chapters of the novel resolve the mysteries that have been underlying the rest—how the son divided his parents, why the co-worker had disappeared from Harold’s life—and there’s a powerful resolution in which all’s well that ends well.

Manipulative but moving, for readers who don’t mind having their strings pulled.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9329-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2012

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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