Bynum is undoubtedly gifted with language and well-versed in literary allusion, but her first is almost unreadable and...



A self-consciously exquisite first novel, written in one-page (sometimes one-sentence) chapters, about the difference between a young French girl’s dreams and her real life.

Madeleine lies in a deep sleep, watched over by her jam-making mother, her distracted farmer father, and her various younger siblings. Madeleine’s hands are wrapped in bandages, having been dipped in lye as punishment for her sexual relations with the town half-wit. Meanwhile, like an x-rated Sleeping Beauty or Dorothy, if Kansas and Oz were equally weird, Madeleine is dreaming stories and characters: Saint Michel, whom she idolizes; a woman who sprouts wings; a woman whose husband carves her face on his viola; a man with a magic gift for expressive flatulence. Eventually in her dreams, also possibly in her past, Madeleine travels to Paris to live as the storybook Madeleine with Mme. Clavel (oddly the original Madeleine is not credited in the notes at the back of the book, where Bynum lists her “literary” references). Madeleine runs away from Mme. Clavel’s convent to join a gypsy circus, where she meets the characters of her dreams. Back home, no one will buy preserves from Madeleine’s mother anymore, and the siblings are getting into trouble. While her mother appears to dote on Madeleine, she can’t help escalating acts of violence toward the unconscious girl. As Madeleine sleeps on, she and the gypsies are supported by a rich widow who pays Madeleine to slap the flatulence-maker’s naked backside. Madeleine and the circus photographer both fall in love with the flatulence-maker, who ends up in the same asylum where the half-wit who molested Madeleine has been placed. In other words, dream and reality begin to converge. Madeleine wakes long enough to organize a performance in the village barn. Then she falls back to sleep while the villagers watch.

Bynum is undoubtedly gifted with language and well-versed in literary allusion, but her first is almost unreadable and frankly sleep-inducing.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-15-101059-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2004

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Offill is good company for the end of the world.


An ever growing list of worries, from a brother with drug problems to a climate change apocalypse, dances through the lively mind of a university librarian.

In its clever and seductive replication of the inner monologue of a woman living in this particular moment in history, Offill’s (Dept. of Speculation, 2014, etc.) third novel might be thought of as a more laconic cousin of Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. Here, the mind we’re embedded in is that of a librarian named Lizzie—an entertaining vantage point despite her concerns big and small. There’s the lady with the bullhorn who won’t let her walk her sensitive young son into his school building. Her brother, who has finally gotten off drugs and has a new girlfriend but still requires her constant, almost hourly, support. Her mentor, Sylvia, a national expert on climate change, who is fed up with her fans and wants Lizzie to take over answering her mail. (“These people long for immortality, but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee,” says Sylvia.) “Malodorous,” “Defacing,” “Combative,” “Humming,” “Lonely”: These are just a few of the categories in a pamphlet called Dealing With Problem Patrons that Lizzie's been given at work, Also, her knee hurts, and she’s spending a fortune on car service because she fears she's Mr. Jimmy’s only customer. Then there are the complex mixed messages of a cable show she can't stop watching: Extreme Shopper. Her husband, Ben, a video game designer and a very kind man, is getting a bit exasperated. As the new president is elected and the climate change questions pour in and the doomsday scenarios pile up, Lizzie tries to hold it together. The tension between mundane daily concerns and looming apocalypse, the "weather" of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill's brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor.

Offill is good company for the end of the world.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-35110-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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