This drama of nuclear dawn fails to launch.

UNIVERSE OF TWO

A story of wartime romance amid the moral quandaries of the Manhattan Project.

Kiernan is known for tackling big topics—the depredations of war (The Baker’s Secret, 2017, etc.) and scientific overreach (The Curiosity, 2013)—and this novel attempts to follow suit. When Brenda Dubie, a talented, conservatory-bound organist, meets Charlie Fish, she’s not impressed by the gangling math whiz despite his Harvard degree. Their accounts of what ensues alternate: hers in first person, at times looking back from the vantage point of an old woman, and his, in third person. Charlie is working on top-secret wartime projects at the University of Chicago, but his superiors are also not impressed by him—he's banished to a basement, where he, and we, learns far more than we’d ever hoped to about the niceties of soldering electrical circuits. Egged on by a mother who regrets her own shrewish behavior now that her husband and son are off to war, Brenda cautiously embarks on a courtship with Charlie. But as Brenda strives to suppress her spunkiness in order to support a vision of masculinity that doesn't even appear to be Charlie’s priority, Charlie is sent to New Mexico. Turns out all that soldering instilled just the detonation know-how required for the nascent A-bomb, aka The Gadget. Charlie, kind and humane, hates the idea of being, in effect, the Trigger (his nickname) for civilization’s potential destruction. His internal conflict is far more interesting than the romance. Brenda’s retrospective musings reveal a long marriage to Charlie. Kiernan overcompensates for that loss of suspense, interposing obstacles in the path of true love—a half-hearted detour with a handsome airman on Brenda’s part—but they’re mostly snits and misunderstandings that aren’t believably characteristic of either protagonist. Kiernan’s view of American women’s roles in World War II seems outdated even for that time. Contemporaneous accounts of the homefront belie his apparent supposition that all women did was pine for manly, battle-hardened men.

This drama of nuclear dawn fails to launch.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-287844-1

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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