The best examination of political and moral issues within the framework of family life since Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres...

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EVERYTHING AFTER

The author of the odd, haunting What Happened to Henry (2004) does even better in her powerful second novel about the inescapable consequences of war and lies.

Narrator Iris Sunnaret initially depicts her childhood with adoptive parents Eleanor and Charlie Jackson as secure and idyllic, complete with patriotic Fourth of July barbecues. But then her brothers go to serve in Vietnam in 1968, and word comes that Eddie is dead and Perry is missing. Older sister Angie, enraged that Charlie and Eleanor allowed the boys to enlist, starts an affair with their son Hank (raised as a brother to the four Sunnarets) and gets involved with radical groups protesting the war—anathema to Charlie, who served with the Sunnarets’ father in the early days of the Indochinese conflict and has always run his household along strict, military-influenced lines of order. “Everybody had his place,” remembers Hank in one of the novel’s most chilling scenes, explaining why Iris’s father had killed the children’s dog while home on one of his infrequent visits from the Far East. Girls rank above dogs but below boys and men; where grown women fit in is unclear, but the gradually emerging facts about the death of Iris’s mother suggest that being the wife of a warrior was intolerable for her. Angie had protected baby Iris from their mother’s increasing mental instability, and as her illusions about the past drop away, Iris struggles to reconcile the embittered adult sister who frightens her with the aunt and uncle whose complicity with evil she now recognizes but whose love she cannot reject. There are no easy answers in Pywell’s rich narrative, which seems to offer Shakespearean serenity in the final scene (another Fourth of July party), then slaps readers in the face with a brutal reminder of the cost at which this serenity was achieved.

The best examination of political and moral issues within the framework of family life since Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991). Pywell has a gift for capturing the complexity of sibling relationships that is all her own.

Pub Date: April 20, 2006

ISBN: 0-399-15350-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2006

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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