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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Reader Votes

  • Readers Vote
  • 19

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize

  • National Book Award Finalist


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

Did you like this book?

Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of...


Lifelong, conflicted friendship of two women is the premise of Hannah’s maudlin latest (Magic Hour, 2006, etc.), again set in Washington State.

Tallulah “Tully” Hart, father unknown, is the daughter of a hippie, Cloud, who makes only intermittent appearances in her life. Tully takes refuge with the family of her “best friend forever,” Kate Mularkey, who compares herself unfavorably with Tully, in regards to looks and charisma. In college, “TullyandKate” pledge the same sorority and major in communications. Tully has a life goal for them both: They will become network TV anchorwomen. Tully lands an internship at KCPO-TV in Seattle and finagles a producing job for Kate. Kate no longer wishes to follow Tully into broadcasting and is more drawn to fiction writing, but she hesitates to tell her overbearing friend. Meanwhile a love triangle blooms at KCPO: Hard-bitten, irresistibly handsome, former war correspondent Johnny is clearly smitten with Tully. Expecting rejection, Kate keeps her infatuation with Johnny secret. When Tully lands a reporting job with a Today-like show, her career shifts into hyperdrive. Johnny and Kate had started an affair once Tully moved to Manhattan, and when Kate gets pregnant with daughter Marah, they marry. Kate is content as a stay-at-home mom, but frets about being Johnny’s second choice and about her unrealized writing ambitions. Tully becomes Seattle’s answer to Oprah. She hires Johnny, which spells riches for him and Kate. But Kate’s buttons are fully depressed by pitched battles over slutwear and curfews with teenaged Marah, who idolizes her godmother Tully. In an improbable twist, Tully invites Kate and Marah to resolve their differences on her show, only to blindside Kate by accusing her, on live TV, of overprotecting Marah. The BFFs are sundered. Tully’s latest attempt to salvage Cloud fails: The incorrigible, now geriatric hippie absconds once more. Just as Kate develops a spine, she’s given some devastating news. Will the friends reconcile before it’s too late?

Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of poignancy.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-312-36408-3

Page Count: 496

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2007

Did you like this book?