Never sentimental; always thrillingly alive.

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TRUST EXERCISE

What begins as the story of obsessive first love between drama students at a competitive performing arts high school in the early 1980s twists into something much darker in Choi’s singular new novel.

The summer between their freshman and sophomore years at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts—an elite institution “intended to cream off the most talented at selected pursuits from the regular places all over the [unnamed Southern] city” where they lived—Sarah and David consummate the romance that had been brewing the whole previous year. It is the natural culmination of the “taut, even dangerous energy running between them,” which—while naturally occurring—has been fostered by Mr. Kingsley, the head of Theatre Arts, who has positioned himself as the central figure in his students' lives, holding power not only over their professional futures, but their social ones as well: part parent, part guru, part master manipulator. But when Sarah and David return in the fall, their relationship instantly crumbles, and in the wake of their very public dissolution, Sarah finds herself increasingly isolated, dismissed into the shadows of CAPA life. Until, that spring, a British theater troupe comes to campus as part of a cultural exchange, and Sarah, along with her classmate Karen, begin parallel relationships with the English imports: Karen is in love with the director, and Sarah is uncomfortably linked to his protégé, the production’s star. It is, until now, a straightforward story, capturing—with nauseating, addictive accuracy—the particular power dynamics of elite theater training. And then, in the second part of the novel, Pulitzer finalist Choi (My Education, 2013, etc.) upends everything we thought we knew, calling the truth of the original narrative into question. (A short coda, set in 2013, recasts it again.) This could easily be insufferable; in Choi’s hands, it works: an effective interrogation of memory, the impossible gulf between accuracy and the stories we tell. And yet, as rigorous and as clever and as relevant as it is, the second half of the novel never quite reaches the soaring heights of the first. It’s hardly a deal breaker: the writing (exquisite) and the observations (cuttingly accurate) make Choi’s latest both wrenching and one-of-a-kind.

Never sentimental; always thrillingly alive.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-30988-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Dec. 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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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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