Imperfect and mis-titled yet incisive, Bliss provides a colloquial glimpse at the Israeli social fabric.



A circuitous second novel by Israeli author Matalon (The One Facing Us, 1998), told in flashbacks, follows a soured friendship between two Tel Aviv women during the years of intifada.

Past and present events dart in and out of this many-faceted, frequently ambiguous narrative: By the time narrator Ofra and her best friend from childhood, Sarah, bid goodbye at the Tel Aviv airport (Ofra is boarding her flight to France, where she’ll attend the funeral of her AIDS-stricken cousin), the two 35-year-old friends have already grown estranged over the derailment of Sarah’s marriage after her reckless affair with a young Arab man. Sarah is a political bleeding-heart photographer who champions the Palestinian cause, while Ofra, a plain, selfless graduate student, maintains the academic distance of a wary observer as Sarah throws herself into dramas both domestic and national. Her impulsive marriage to army medic Udi produces her son, Mims, and a seemingly blissful arrangement whereby Ofra contributes equally to the care of the boy; yet Sarah’s ambivalence about motherhood and marriage prompts her to fall for an arrogant Palestinian, Marwan, whose family and social constraints eventually lead him to dump her brutally. Meanwhile, in France, a separate storyline begins, this involving Ofra’s extended French family as they cope with bruised feelings pertaining to the funeral of gay cousin Michel, whose grievance with the French airline he (and his father) worked for remains unclear. It may be that much here suffers in translation—a kind of coy obliqueness, for example, about Arab-Jewish relations (and also Jewish-Gentile dealings in French society) that may not be immediately graspable by the American reader. “Bugs trapped inside a jar, that’s what we are here,” Udi comments, seemingly referring to the Israeli penchant for euphemism and self-deception. Too, the climax involving Sarah’s beating is buried under disorienting layers of narrative back-and-forth, and her erratic behavior in switching between Udi and Marwan appears merely self-serving and unworthy of Ofra’s earnest friendship.

Imperfect and mis-titled yet incisive, Bliss provides a colloquial glimpse at the Israeli social fabric.

Pub Date: Aug. 12, 2003

ISBN: 0-8050-6602-0

Page Count: 252

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2003

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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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 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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