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Rama's Labyrinth

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

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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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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THE RUMOR

Once again, Hilderbrand displays her gift for making us care most about her least likable characters.

Hilderbrand’s latest cautionary tale exposes the toxic—and hilarious—impact of gossip on even the most sophisticated of islands.

Eddie and Grace Pancik are known for their beautiful Nantucket home and grounds, financed with the profits from Eddie’s thriving real estate company (thriving before the crash of 2008, that is). Grace raises pedigreed hens and, with the help of hunky landscape architect Benton Coe, has achieved a lush paradise of fowl-friendly foliage. The Panciks’ teenage girls, Allegra and Hope, suffer invidious comparisons of their looks and sex appeal, although they're identical twins. The Panciks’ friends the Llewellyns (Madeline, a blocked novelist, and her airline-pilot husband, Trevor) invested $50,000, the lion’s share of Madeline’s last advance, in Eddie’s latest development. But Madeline, hard-pressed to come up with catalog copy, much less a new novel, is living in increasingly straightened circumstances, at least by Nantucket standards: she can only afford $2,000 per month on the apartment she rents in desperate hope that “a room of her own” will prime the creative pump. Construction on Eddie’s spec houses has stalled, thanks to the aforementioned crash. Grace, who has been nursing a crush on Benton for some time, gives in and a torrid affair ensues, which she ill-advisedly confides to Madeline after too many glasses of Screaming Eagle. With her agent and publisher dropping dire hints about clawing back her advance and Eddie “temporarily” unable to return the 50K, what’s a writer to do but to appropriate Grace’s adultery as fictional fodder? When Eddie is seen entering her apartment (to ask why she rented from a rival realtor), rumors spread about him and Madeline, and after the rival realtor sneaks a look at Madeline’s rough draft (which New York is hotly anticipating as “the Playboy Channel meets HGTV”), the island threatens to implode with prurient snark. No one is spared, not even Hilderbrand herself, “that other Nantucket novelist,” nor this magazine, “the notoriously cranky Kirkus.”

Once again, Hilderbrand displays her gift for making us care most about her least likable characters.

Pub Date: June 16, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-33452-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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