A bold but failed attempt to combine magic realism and intellectual fiction.

THE INVENTION OF EVERYTHING ELSE

In her second novel, Hunt (The Seas, 2004) imagines the final days of Nikola Tesla.

On New Year’s Eve, 1942, the 86-year-old inventor bitterly muses over his past: “I am broke. I have given AC electricity to the world…radar, remote control, and radio to the world, and because I asked for nothing in return, nothing is exactly what I got.” He talks to a pigeon and a statue of Goethe in Central Park, and he believes they reply—no wonder the staff at the Hotel New Yorker, where Tesla hasn’t paid his bill in months, think he’s crazy. He’s forbidden them to clean his room, but Louisa, a chambermaid who frequently snoops through the guests’ belongings, can’t resist reading some of his papers, a device that allows the author to provide backstory about Tesla’s rivalry with Edison, his love for the wife of a friend and his idealistic refusal to profit from the inventions he believes should be freely available to all. This material doesn’t fit comfortably with the story line about Louisa’s burgeoning romance with the mysterious Arthur and her father Walter’s yearning for his long-dead wife. When an old friend of Walter’s surfaces with the news that he’s built a time machine, the novel really goes off the rails: past and present, real and unreal are jumbled murkily together; Walter’s lengthy recollections of his wife (not quite the paragon he’d led Louisa to believe) awkwardly precede his disastrous flight above Queens in the time machine. Gorgeous descriptions of New York City in another age, an engaging portrait of imaginative but sensible Louisa and a poignant one of Tesla can’t disguise the fact that Hunt’s ambitious narrative structure simply doesn’t work. There’s much food for thought here and some very beautiful prose. Unfortunately, plot developments that come perilously close to being ludicrous undercut Tesla’s lyrical insistence that “wonders are possible here on Earth.”

A bold but failed attempt to combine magic realism and intellectual fiction.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-618-80112-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2007

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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