THE UNQUIET GRAVE

McCrumb’s (Prayers the Devil Answers, 2016, etc.) latest combines an Appalachian ghost story with a turn-of-the-last-century murder case.

This tale takes a while to develop, as it progresses at the ambling pace of a one-horse buggy over muddy roads. The setting veers back and forth between rural Greenbrier County in 1890s West Virginia and a segregated asylum “for the Colored Insane” in 1930. In Greenbrier, Mrs. Heaster, a farm wife, worries about her only daughter, the beautiful and impractical Zona, who, at 20, has endangered her marriageability with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. However, after Zona’s child is adopted out, she meets handsome blacksmith “Trout” Shue. The infatuation is immediate and mutual, and the couple rushes to marry. Zona ignores her mother’s cautions about hasty marriage, particularly to someone whose last wife (Shue’s second) died of a fall less than a year before. At the wedding reception, Shue’s remark about Zona’s weight immediately alerts Mrs. Heaster that her daughter has just married what we would today term a potentially abusive control freak. Sure enough, within a few months, Zona is dead—from a tumble down the stairs, according to her husband—and Shue refuses to let anyone else near her body until it is safely interred. Mrs. Heaster’s suspicions that the death was no accident are confirmed after visits from Zona’s ghost lead her to demand an exhumation and autopsy. In 1930, James Gardner, an elderly retired attorney committed to the Lakin hospital following a suicide attempt, recalls the days when, while apprenticed to the colorful barrister William Rucker, he was second chair in the defense of Shue at his murder trial. Despite the intriguing questions touching on Gardner’s struggles as a black lawyer in the South, the asylum sections, consisting of many courtly dialogues with a sympathetic doctor, are unavoidably dull, since they distract from the far more suspenseful experiences of Mrs. Heaster as she pulls out all the stops to get justice for her daughter in a system controlled by men.

Unquiet indeed.

Pub Date: June 20, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5011-7287-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2017

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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