Hellenga’s delicacy and insight redeem what might have been a mere retrospective rehash of Pleasures.

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THE ITALIAN LOVER

Hellenga (Philosophy Made Simple, 2006, etc.) returns to Florence, the setting of his celebrated first novel (The Sixteen Pleasures, 1994), this time to chronicle the fictional (so far) production of the movie version of said novel.

Film rights to The Sixteen Pleasures, Margot Harrington’s memoir of her youthful adventures as a book conservator after the 1966 Florentine floods, have finally emerged from turnaround hell. Margot and her new lover, Woody, a classics professor whose daughter was killed in a terrorist attack at a Bologna train station, are writing the screenplay. Producer Esther has her own script, which “dumbs down” Margot’s story of her discovery of that book of 16 erotic sonnets with illustrations, and her bittersweet affair with Italian lothario Sandro, into a conventional romantic comedy, The Italian Lover. Everyone “above the line” on this picture has issues: Margot is facing intimations of lonely old age; Woody is ambivalent about remaining in Italy after he is sued for rescuing an abused dog; Esther is reeling from her recent divorce. Director Michael is dying of prostate cancer; his wife Beryl’s total immersion in Italian permits an (almost) guilt-free fling with Zanni, who’s starring as Sandro. Leading lady Miranda, who plays 29-year-old Margot, is disappointed that her screen lover Zanni prefers an older woman, and she sides with Margot in the clash of the dueling screenplays. Large chunks of filmmaking how-to may appeal only to movie mavens, but Hellenga expounds on technique to illuminate subtext, as when “middling director” Michael, striving for a final masterpiece, attempts an Altmanesque tracking shot and is stranded on a malfunctioning crane high above the Piazza Degli Uffizi. Hellenga doesn’t always heed Michael’s storytelling advice, “Intentionality is the enemy.” The characters’ actions often seem arbitrary and stage-directed, such as Beryl’s abrupt retreat to fidelity. The mood is meditative since Margot and the other principals are saying “goodbye to all that,” whatever, in each case, “that” may be.

Hellenga’s delicacy and insight redeem what might have been a mere retrospective rehash of Pleasures.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-11763-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2007

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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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