Pretentious navel-gazing without the humor of HBO’s Girls, which covers similar terrain.

HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE?

A NOVEL FROM LIFE

Toronto-based Heti (Ticknor, 2006, etc.) and her real-life friends, including Misha Glouberman with whom she wrote a previous book (Where the Chairs Are Where the People Go, 2011), are central characters in this meandering novel that attempts to erase the line between fact and fiction.

Sheila is a recently divorced playwright—the marriage ended at her request for no clearly spelled out reason—attempting to finish a commissioned play while working part time in a beauty salon where her boss Uri is a kind of guru preaching beauty in balance. She claims what she desires is a simple life of fame without having to change her life. She also talks quite a bit about her search for a sense of self. She spends time with her friend Margaux, an artist who lives with Misha and has entered an ugly painting contest with another painter friend of Heti’s named Sholem. Heti buys a digital tape recorder and the novel includes actual taped conversations with Margaux, to whom the novel is dedicated, as well as emails between the two. Margaux and Heti have a falling-out because Margaux feels Heti has invaded her private boundaries, both by taping her and, more egregiously, by buying the same yellow dress while they are at an art festival in Miami. Meanwhile, Sheila has met Israel, who works in a bakery. He considers himself a painter, but Sheila recognizes his real art lies in the sex department. She describes their sadomasochistic antics in explicit, though untitillating detail. For a while, Sheila and Margaux fall into a pattern of heavy partying and druggy debauchery until Margaux pulls away. Sheila worries she’s a narcissist, not without good reason perhaps. Claiming imperfect wanderer Moses rather than sinless Jesus as spiritual guide, she leaves Toronto for New York, but she’s no happier there. After a gambling jaunt to Atlantic City, she returns to Toronto in time for the conclusion of the ugly painting contest.

Pretentious navel-gazing without the humor of HBO’s Girls, which covers similar terrain.

Pub Date: June 19, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9472-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

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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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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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