A disappointing effort from a talented writer.

SACRED HEARTS

Another Renaissance novel from Dunant (In the Company of the Courtesan, 2006, etc.), this one focused on convent life.

In 16th-century Italy, convents were not home merely to women who felt called to Christ. They were also repositories for ugly, unconventional or otherwise unmarriageable daughters. Many of these discarded young women were from noble families, and the luxuries and extravagances of court life left them disinclined toward asceticism. Nuns who vowed to avoid unnecessary talk nevertheless managed to gossip. Women committed to poverty lined their rough habits with satin and fur. And the promise of eternal chastity was no safeguard against desire. Dunant does a thorough job of depicting these tensions, conflicts and paradoxes. She captures convent life and sets it in a larger cultural context, paying particular attention to the religious politics of the times. The novel boasts a bibliography of 56 titles, and the reader who is so inclined can make a game of guessing which historical or theological tidbit came from which source. Unfortunately, this is about the only form of entertainment on offer here. The book has none of the dash, energy and storytelling confidence that made Dunant’s last novel so enjoyable. She seems overwhelmed or overawed by her material, and the narrative is not merely slow but oddly repetitive. Characters make the same discoveries again and again, and even the most dramatic events simply dissipate. The repetitive plot does have the effect of giving the reader a sense of a nun’s existence, defined as it is by a never-deviating schedule of devotions. For the nun with a true vocation, this is no doubt a source of comfort and even elation, a release from mundane time and a tantalizing foretaste of eternity. But the average reader is likely to identify with those extraneous daughters interred against their will, struggling to stay awake and yearning for a little action.

A disappointing effort from a talented writer.

Pub Date: July 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6382-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2009

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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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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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