One of our best novelists (The Time of Our Singing, 2003, etc.) once again extends his unparalleled range.

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THE ECHO MAKER

The theme of cognitive disorder, variously explored in Powers’s forbiddingly brainy earlier fiction, is the central subject of his eerie, accomplished ninth novel.

An image of sand-hill cranes migrating from Nebraska’s Platte River sets the scene, where 20-something slaughterhouse-worker Mark Schluter crashes his truck in an adjacent field, sustaining severe bodily and neurological injuries. Repeating an all-too-familiar pattern, Mark’s older sister Karin leaves her job and life in Sioux City to be with him—stirring up memories of their shared childhood in thrall to a violent, alcoholic father and religious zealot mother. But Mark (whose inchoate, terrified viewpoint is rendered in a rich mélange of semi-coherent thoughts and visions) no longer knows Karin; he is, in fact, convinced she’s a stranger masquerading as his sister. Eventually, he’s diagnosed as suffering from “Capgras syndrome . . . one of a family of misidentification delusions.” But Mark’s symptoms elude the pattern familiar to Gerald Weber, a prominent New York cognitive neurologist and bestselling author, summoned by Karin’s importuning letter. Weber’s “tests” fail to relieve or explain Mark’s delusive paranoia, and Karin turns first to the siblings’ former childhood friend Daniel Riegel, long since estranged from Mark, now a deeply committed environmental activist; then to her former lover Robert Karsh, a manipulative charmer who has risen to local prominence as a successful developer. Contrasts thus established seem pat, but Powers explores the mystery surrounding Mark through suspenseful sequences involving his raucous drinking buddies (who may know more about his accident than they’re telling); compassionate caregiver Barbara Gillespie; and the unidentified observer who left a cryptic message about Mark’s ordeal at the patient’s hospital bedside. Issues of environmental stewardship and rapine, compulsions implicit in migratory patterns and Weber’s changing concept of the fluid, susceptible nature of the self are sharply dramatized in a fascinating dance of ideas.

One of our best novelists (The Time of Our Singing, 2003, etc.) once again extends his unparalleled range.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2006

ISBN: 0-374-14635-7

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

THE WINTER GUEST

An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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