Leslie’s compliment that Kathryn’s work is “lined with silken sentences” holds true for Naslund (Adam and Eve, 2010)....

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THE FOUNTAIN OF ST. JAMES COURT

OR, THE PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN

Despite a subtitle that clearly refers to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf echoes far louder in this novel within a novel following one day in the life of a 60-ish author of a fictional biography about the 18th-century portraitist of Marie Antoinette.

In contemporary Louisville, Ky., thrice divorced Kathryn Callaghan walks her newly completed manuscript over to Leslie, a musician and fellow writer with whom she’s been best friends since they grew up in Montgomery, Ala. African-American Leslie’s mother participated in the bus boycott. Leslie has recently moved to Louisville, and soon, Kathryn introduces her to another dear friend Daisy. Walking with her husband, Daisy feels a sense of danger when she notices a car drive by. Kathryn goes home and thinks about her beloved gay son, Humphrey, now living abroad, safe from his dangerous former lover. In the morning, Kathryn takes a walk with Humphrey’s father, Peter, her second husband. She thinks some more about her life, connecting deep emotions to literary references. She spends her day partially preparing for a possible visit from a potential new love interest, talking with her friends and contemplating her life in literary terms. Meanwhile, Leslie, along with the reader, is reading Kathryn’s first-person novel about Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, a fiction also heavily invested in analyzing what it is to be an artist. Kathryn’s somewhat stiff prose describes Elisabeth’s early childhood as an artistic prodigy, her difficulties after her father’s death, her unhappy marriage, her fortuitous meeting with Marie Antoinette, whom she defends as misunderstood, not unlike Naslund in her 2006 historical novel Abundance. Like Kathryn, Elisabeth’s love life never mattered as much as her art. But while Elisabeth and her only daughter became estranged before the daughter’s untimely death, Kathryn proves herself willing to go to any lengths to protect her perfect son.

Leslie’s compliment that Kathryn’s work is “lined with silken sentences” holds true for Naslund (Adam and Eve, 2010). Nevertheless, the tone of literary high-mindedness and self-importance grows wearing after a while.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-157932-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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