Like James Michener, Saylor the novelist (A Gladiator Dies Only Once, 2005, etc.) is upstaged by Saylor the historian—except...

ROMA

Livy meets Michener in this sprawling, episodic 1,000-year novel of the rise of ancient Rome from its first settlement to the assassination of Julius Caesar.

How to give a millennium of Roman history the coherence of a fictional epic? Saylor uses three devices to shape his story. He chooses his 11 focal points selectively, sometimes leaping hundreds of years between chapters. He focuses on the shifting fortunes of the families descended from two cousins, Potitia and Pinarius, and he traces the descent of a fascinum, a gold amulet in the shape of a winged penis, as it’s passed down from generation to generation of the often warring families. The results are decidedly mixed. Although his discontinuous story requires repeated infusions of arid exposition at the beginning of each chapter, Saylor’s gift for dramatic narrative brings alive familiar tales from Roman history: the establishment of the city by the twins Romulus and Remus, Hercules’ defeat of the monstrous Cacus, Tarquin’s rape of Lucretia, the rise and fall of Coriolanus, Verginius’ sacrifice of his defiled daughter, the sacred geese that raise the cry against an invasion by the Gauls, the campaign against Hannibal and Carthage. Although he freely embroiders on historical events in order to make room for the Potitii and the Pinarii, he makes many of their encounters with historical figures touching and compelling, particularly in the first half of the story, which finds both families dwindling to virtual extinction. After the Gallic siege of the Capitoline, however, Saylor’s resurgent heroes increasingly come to seem like onlookers and spear-carriers to historical events more interesting than they are, and by the time of the Caesars, the clans, although they’ve merged, are clearly showing their age.

Like James Michener, Saylor the novelist (A Gladiator Dies Only Once, 2005, etc.) is upstaged by Saylor the historian—except when he suggests that history itself is fact-based fiction.

Pub Date: March 6, 2007

ISBN: 0-312-32831-1

Page Count: 576

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2007

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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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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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