Instructive historical fiction, even if it views its subject through rose-colored glasses.

Rama's Labyrinth

Wagner-Wright’s debut novel focuses on a long-forgotten Indian social reformer.

In the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, the young warrior Abhimanyu penetrates the enemy’s complex battlefield formation but gets trapped on his way out of it. Abhimanyu’s “Chakravyuh,” or labyrinth, might well be a metaphor for the life of Pandita Ramabai “Rama” Sarasvati, an independent-minded Indian woman born in the 19th century who faced numerous obstacles in her quest to find her true calling. In a society in which caste dictated one’s life path, young Rama was fortunate on two counts: she was born a Brahmin, and her father, Ananta Shastri, was a Sanskrit scholar who firmly believed in women’s education. The young Rama’s study of Hindu religious texts only raises more questions, and the answers she receives are far from satisfactory. Unfortunately, she has more pressing concerns when she loses several family members to famine and disease. Wagner-Wright explores Rama’s coming-of-age as she learns to navigate rigid societal mores while making a life for herself and her daughter, Mano. Initially finding refuge in India’s secular social institution, Brahmo Samaj, Rama discovered hypocrisy there, too. After traveling to Britain and the United States as a distinguished scholar of Sanskrit, she eventually found succor in Christianity and returned to India to set up a school for young widows and the underprivileged. The fruits of her labors still operate in India today, although she had to overcome a labyrinth of doubters and bureaucracy to make it happen. Wagner-Wright’s novel is an informative exploration of one of history’s many forgotten heroines. However, with historical fiction, it’s sometimes difficult to separate fact from invention, and some readers might find Rama’s ready dismissal of Hinduism and the Brahmo Samaj to be a tad too easy and glib. The pacing also suffers at times in this long work, particularly near the beginning, when the Shastri family’s peregrinations from town to town become tedious and repetitive. Also, the relentless, starry-eyed focus on Rama becomes claustrophobic and doesn’t adequately place her story against the larger historical context. As a result, some elements of the country’s history remain largely under wraps.

Instructive historical fiction, even if it views its subject through rose-colored glasses.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-9963845-1-3

Page Count: 542

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Dec. 14, 2015

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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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