This promising first novel stumbles too often for its young narrator to come fully to life.



A portrait of immigrant life in 1920s Chicago, focused on a Jewish girl’s coming-of-age, yields mixed results in short story writer Wineberg’s (Second Language, 2005) first novel.

Life in America for young, artistically inclined Lena Czernitski proves terribly difficult after her family flees violence in 1922 Russia, where her grandfather was murdered at the dinner table and people on the street chanted, “Peace, land and bread. Kill Jews and save Russia.” Arriving in Chicago at age 10, Lena writes lists of her fears, worrying at first about her safety and never learning English, evolving over six years to despair that she’ll never be happy again. Wineberg heaps endless tsuris, or troubles as the family calls them in Yiddish, upon Lena, her older brother, Simon, and her parents. A new hardship arises in almost every early chapter, including a lecherous relative, the death of a child, an anti-Semitic schoolteacher who threatens to fail Lena and mysterious strife between her hardworking parents. There are strong scenes of Lena in conversation with her father, who supports her talent for drawing but whose goodness is in constant question. Lena’s disgust with her mother’s pessimism, grief and need to keep secrets drives her to take risks to find happiness, and she does, dating a boy named Max and declaring that as an artist, “I wanted to rip open the world.” But Wineberg has Lena tell her story in the moment rather than in retrospect, devoting too little to Lena’s thoughts and reflections on her life. Weighed down in key moments by clichéd language, the book becomes an unfortunate series of repetitive scenes rather than a unified whole.  

This promising first novel stumbles too often for its young narrator to come fully to life.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9847648-1-5

Page Count: 270

Publisher: Relegation Books

Review Posted Online: July 12, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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