"You have longings, the male Eros does that to you; you take the sexual path and it leads you into lewdness, lewdness opens up into insanity, a world of madness rushes at you full face." This, for narrator Kenneth Trachtenberg, 35, assistant prof of Russian literature, is the "pain schedule," the "unique ordeal" for brainy, refined men in 20th-century America: men with "the privilege of vision," men with no "gift"—but lots of yearning—for love and sex. And Bellow's new novel—Kenneth's rambling, often richly comic monologue—details the agonies that come when two such men insist on seeking love (in a world where Eros is debased) instead of settling for exquisite isolation. Kenneth's primary focus is on his beloved Uncle Berm, renowned botanist and esteemed professor at a Midwestern university, a man of epic mind and soul: "He had the magics, but as a mainstream manager he was nowhere." So, despite protective maneuvers by Kenneth, widower Benn has recently fallen into "a succession of sexual miseries": seduction by an alcoholic divorcee neighbor; near-entrapment by a freaked-out, jet-setting former beauty; and now—impetuous marriage to "glittering, nervous" Matilda Layamon, social-climbing daughter of a rich, crass local doctor. Living with his pushy new in-laws in their palatial duplex, passive Berm is out-of-place, cut off from his resonating plant-world. Matilda—whose allure has always had a menacing aspect (her wide, thin shoulders remind Berm of Tony Perkins in Psycho drag)—spends half the day asleep, the other half planning her grand salon (with Benn as social bait). Worst of all, the greedy Layamons prod Benn—against all his finer instincts—into raking up an old family quarrel: Great-Uncle Vilitzer (a corrupt city power-broker, now 80, ill, in legal trouble) once cheated Benn and his sister (Kenneth's mother) out of a real-estate fortune. While recounting Benn's degradation (and ultimate escape), however, Kenneth also broods on his own turmoil as the unsexy, academic son of "a father with a world-historical cock." Kenneth's ex-girlfriend lives in Seattle with their child, spurning his obsessed wooing, preferring rough-stuff lovers. Meanwhile, since women too "die of heartbreak," Kenneth's platonic friend Dita (who has bad skin) undergoes awful plastic surgery in an attempt to increase her desirability to him. The provocative socio-sexual ideas on display throughout—the brain/body split (cf. Bellow's story "Cousins"), the futility of love, the "fallen state" of humankind—don't hold up well under incessant repetition without development; Kenneth—part authorial alter-ego, part figure-of-fun (pompous and prim)—is an unsatisfying novel-length narrator, ambiguous yet flat. Often, in fact, this seems to be a dense short-story or two, stretched out to 336 pages—winding down to mild denouements (which are heavily foreshadowed) instead of barreling towards them. (All too aptly, Kenneth likens his speculations to "a stationary bicycle.") Still, there are great chunks of fine, funny Bellovian rhetoric here (that aphoristic blend of scholar and stand-up), along with enough sporadic narrative zing—amused, appalled vignettes worthy of a Jewish-American Balzac—to compensate readers for the longueurs and overall puffiness.

Pub Date: June 15, 1987

ISBN: 0142437743

Page Count: -

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1987

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.


When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.


In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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