An overwrought exploration of family and history.

THIS I KNOW

Searching for answers about her mother’s past, a woman visits a psychic and an uncle she barely knows in this literary novel.

In 2010, an Orthodox Jewish woman visits the Manhattan consulting room of psychic Jennifer Rose, once Rosetti. Ever since her mother Rebecca’s death, Ora Neumann, 61, has been sunk in depression and desperately needs to hear her mother’s voice again, although her religion and her husband forbid trafficking with the occult. But she’s disappointed by the session and waits another two years to open her mother’s jewelry box, afraid of its possible secrets. The contents lead Ora to Uncle Henry, 87, whom she remembers only hazily. From him, she slowly extracts her mother’s story. Born in Poland, Rebecca, her brothers, and her fiancé, Shmuel, escaped to America before World War II; Rebecca’s school friend Tsipora “Tsipi” Greenstein stayed behind and survived the Holocaust. In 1947, Rebecca and her now-husband Shmuel, together with Henry and his co-worker Max, visit the thriving Kibbutz Tzofim in Palestine, where Tsipi now lives. Rebecca loves kibbutz life and stays on for a time when Shmuel returns to America and his job as Tsipi and Max begin a romance. Tsipi reveals that the kibbutz shelters a hidden munitions factory turning out bullets for the upcoming war of independence. Other revelations from Henry provide Ora with a new understanding of her mother that finally gives her peace, as she reports in a letter to the psychic. Wachtel (Three for a Dollar, 2017, etc.) taps into the near-universal longing to understand one’s roots. Together with the well-described historical settings, this lends urgency to the book. The book’s lyrical tone, however, can feel overcooked, especially since it’s employed, implausibly, by every character: “Freed, her red auburn ringlets threw sparks into the night air as Tsipi took one last glance up at the moon, as if the two possessed some long-held secret.” 

An overwrought exploration of family and history.

Pub Date: March 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-68433-022-5

Page Count: 132

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Review Posted Online: May 9, 2018

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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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