Character motivation is the main puzzle here.


In 1740s London, a mother attempting to retrieve her child must first unsnarl a mystery—and so must readers.

Halls’ (The Familiars, 2019) two adult protagonists, whose stories alternate in long sections, are Bess Bright, a working-class London shrimp vendor, and Alexandra Callard, the wealthy widow of whalebone merchant Daniel. Like many impoverished Londoners, Bess cannot afford to raise her child, Clara, whom she delivers as a newborn to the Foundling Hospital. Six years later, after painstakingly accumulating the fee for Clara’s release, Bess is told that Clara was reclaimed the day after her admission—by Bess herself. Unpicking this conundrum will be the book’s major focus, to its detriment. As Bess continues her quest at the hospital, with the help of its sympathetic physician, Dr. Mead, she encounters Mrs. Callard and her child, Charlotte, on what will prove to be one of their rare outings. On a hunch that has everything to do with the brief assignation—with Daniel Callard—that impregnated her, Bess assumes that Charlotte is Clara. Cut to Alexandra, who is raising Charlotte as her own. Though she's a first-person narrator, Alexandra withholds information on several key issues, particularly how she came by Charlotte and exactly how much she knows of Charlotte’s parentage. Why is Alexandra housebound by choice? And obsessed with locks and maps? When Bess, calling herself Eliza Smith, wangles a position as Charlotte’s nursemaid, it is unclear why Dr. Mead, Alexandra’s only friend besides her sister, Ambrosia, recommends “Eliza” for the job when he knows her real name. The puzzle-box plot distracts readers from the far more compelling enigmas that have made “lost orphans” of all three main characters. A notable strength of the novel is the depiction of the entrenched social injustice that affords slum-dwellers like Bess so few options. Various mid-18th-century subsistence occupations are vividly evoked, including Bess’ workdays doling out boiled shrimp from her hat and “linkboys,” who guide people through London’s unlit streets at night.

Character motivation is the main puzzle here.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7783-0932-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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A flabby, fervid melodrama of a high-strung Southern family from Conroy (The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline), whose penchant for overwriting once again obscures a genuine talent. Tom Wingo is an unemployed South Carolinian football coach whose internist wife is having an affair with a pompous cardiac man. When he hears that his fierce, beautiful twin sister Savannah, a well-known New York poet, has once again attempted suicide, he escapes his present emasculation by flying north to meet Savannah's comely psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. Savannah, it turns out, is catatonic, and before the suicide attempt had completely assumed the identity of a dead friend—the implication being that she couldn't stand being a Wingo anymore. Susan (a shrink with a lot of time on her hands) says to Tom, "Will you stay in New York and tell me all you know?" and he does, for nearly 600 mostly-bloated pages of flashbacks depicting The Family Wingo of swampy Colleton County: a beautiful mother, a brutal shrimper father (the Great Santini alive and kicking), and Tom and Savannah's much-admired older brother, Luke. There are enough traumas here to fall an average-sized mental ward, but the biggie centers around Luke, who uses the skills learned as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam to fight a guerrilla war against the installation of a nuclear power plant in Colleton and is killed by the authorities. It's his death that precipitates the nervous breakdown that costs Tom his job, and Savannah, almost, her life. There may be a barely-glimpsed smaller novel buried in all this succotash (Tom's marriage and life as a football coach), but it's sadly overwhelmed by the book's clumsy central narrative device (flashback ad infinitum) and Conroy's pretentious prose style: ""There are no verdicts to childhood, only consequences, and the bright freight of memory. I speak now of the sun-struck, deeply lived-in days of my past.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1986

ISBN: 0553381547

Page Count: 686

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986

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A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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