The Count of Sainte-Hélène, or The Lure of Infamy

A NOVEL OF THE BOURBON RESTORATION

In Blumenfeld’s (Teach Yourself Accents: Europe, 2014, etc.) historical novel, duplicity reigns in Bourbon Restoration–era France.
As the novel opens, the “charming, if slightly obsequious” Count of Sainte-Hélène, along with King Louis XVIII and other French elites, is watching a play about the abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots. The upheaval depicted onstage reflects the novel’s 1816 setting, in which the Bourbons have been newly restored to the throne, one year after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and 27 years after the start of the French Revolution. The era’s social confusion has allowed the class structure to become more fluid than usual: Vidocq, the police detective, has his own history of criminality and prison escapes, and the aristocrats who frequent the king’s court don’t always have the highborn lineages they proclaim. When robbers strike the homes of some of those aristocrats, as well as the government’s Central Records Office, Vidocq is tasked with uncovering the mastermind, who appears to have an insider’s knowledge of the burgled homes. The disguise-loving Vidocq well knows, however, that appearances can be deceiving. The first scene’s setting is apt, as Blumenfeld’s novel is highly theatrical, adding fine flourishes to both its historical figures and its fictional characters. The king’s obsessive gluttony, a duchess’s strangely insightful malapropisms and a baron’s clueless seduction tactics (“Kiss me, my stuffed cabbage!”) would make any comedic actor exuberant. The novel’s third act centers on a series of trials, and the overall tension starts to dissipate as those trials progress; nonetheless, they would still make for vivid scenes on a lavishly designed stage. The author can sometimes be a bit showily clever and overly explanatory, as when he describes a man “whose moustache and beard hid not only his extreme probity, for he was the soul of honesty, but also his ruthless cunning, for he was the epitome of rapacity.” But his style is also precise, classic and witty, and an admirably faithful homage to 19th century French greats.

A lively ode to the classics, and to the twin delights of mischief and mayhem.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1500154783

Page Count: 316

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2014

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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