Lucid, unpretentious fiction spotlighting the drama of trying to make the divine part of our everyday lives.

THE DELIGHT OF BEING ORDINARY

A ROAD TRIP WITH THE POPE AND THE DALAI LAMA

Another genre-defying installment in Merullo’s engaging series of seriocomic religious novels (Dinner with Buddha, 2015, etc.).

As the subtitle signals, the leaders of two world religions are our guides on this “road trip,” reluctantly accompanied by Pope Francis’ cousin and First Assistant Paolo. He has plenty of enemies in the Vatican bureaucracy and is not anxious to give them more ammunition by facilitating his cousin’s desire for “an unofficial vacation” with the visiting Dalai Lama. This requires the help of Paolo’s estranged wife, Rosa, conveniently the proprietor of a chain of haircutting and makeup salons; she not only crafts their disguises, but voices feminist, secularist doubts about Catholicism and Buddhism while driving a borrowed Maserati with a hair-raising recklessness that alarms her cautious spouse almost more than her challenges to organized religion. Drawing on his apprenticeship as a thriller writer (A Russian Requiem, 1993), Merullo leavens the spiritual questioning with a sharp portrait of emotional and sexual tensions between Paolo and Rosa, plus escalating suspense after news reports cast the disappearance as a kidnapping and Paolo as the perpetrator. The quartet heads toward Lake Como, pausing along the way for biblically-tinged encounters with a shepherd, a prostitute, and a world-weary old movie star wondering why wealth and sex haven’t made him happy. Admirers of previous volumes will recognize Merullo’s knack for depicting goodness without treacle in his deft portraits of the pope and the Dalai Lama, and a La Dolce Vita–esque party scene spotlights his ability to discern humanity in the most decadent circumstances. There is a bit too much plot and too few moments of the transcendent serenity that formed the most beautiful passages in The Vatican Waltz (2013) and the Buddha trilogy. Nonetheless, it’s both moving and unnerving when key characters from those earlier novels reappear at a climactic encounter forecast by the holy men’s dreams to suggest that there may be spiritual hope for our battered world.

Lucid, unpretentious fiction spotlighting the drama of trying to make the divine part of our everyday lives.

Pub Date: April 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-385-54091-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 27, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2017

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FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

This is good Hemingway. It has some of the tenderness of A Farewell to Arms and some of its amazing power to make one feel inside the picture of a nation at war, of the people experiencing war shorn of its glamor, of the emotions that the effects of war — rather than war itself — arouse. But in style and tempo and impact, there is greater resemblance to The Sun Also Rises. Implicit in the characters and the story is the whole tragic lesson of Spain's Civil War, proving ground for today's holocaust, and carrying in its small compass, the contradictions, the human frailties, the heroism and idealism and shortcomings. In retrospect the thread of the story itself is slight. Three days, during which time a young American, a professor who has taken his Sabbatical year from the University of Montana to play his part in the struggle for Loyalist Spain and democracy. He is sent to a guerilla camp of partisans within the Fascist lines to blow up a strategic bridge. His is a complex problem in humanity, a group of undisciplined, unorganized natives, emotionally geared to go their own way, while he has a job that demands unreasoning, unwavering obedience. He falls in love with a lovely refugee girl, escaping the terrors of a fascist imprisonment, and their romance is sharply etched against a gruesome background. It is a searing book; Hemingway has done more to dramatize the Spanish War than any amount of abstract declamation. Yet he has done it through revealing the pettinesses, the indignities, the jealousies, the cruelties on both sides, never glorifying simply presenting starkly the belief in the principles for which these people fought a hopeless war, to give the rest of the world an interval to prepare. There is something of the implacable logic of Verdun in the telling. It's not a book for the thin-skinned; it has more than its fill of obscenities and the style is clipped and almost too elliptical for clarity at times. But it is a book that repays one for bleak moments of unpleasantness.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1940

ISBN: 0684803356

Page Count: 484

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1940

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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