An off-putting mix of stereotypes and platitudes in an unconvincing plot.

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THE IMPROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE

Gilmore (Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, 2008) concocts a poor-little-rich-girl story set in civil-rights–era Nashville. 

The Groves are one of Nashville’s oldest, most prominent families, but under the proper gentility lurks Southern gothic dysfunction. Originally from a more modest background, Mother is a shallow, racist social climber who veers between ignoring and abusing her two daughters as she slides into alcoholism and mental illness. Father is a spineless womanizer who pays little attention to his wife and children before his suspicious but accidental death. Bezellia and her younger sister Adelaide survive their upbringing thanks mainly to their saintly black servants: live-in maid Maizelle and chauffeur-grounds man Nathaniel. In 1965, when Bezellia is 14, Nathaniel’s son Samuel comes to work with his father. Soon Bezellia and Samuel form a special friendship, but the adults separate them. In 1968 Mother won’t let Bezellia go on her high school’s trip to Paris because the chaperone is Father’s mistress. Instead Bezellia spends the summer with Mother’s parents in the country, where she becomes romantically involved with Ruddy, a farm boy whose poverty makes him unacceptable despite his musical ambitions. Anyway, it is Samuel whom Bezellia truly loves. Shortly after their one opportunity to make tender love, he leaves town for college followed by civil-rights activism and a stint in Vietnam. (Tone-deaf to the era, Gilmore has Samuel compare an Alabama sheriff to the North Vietnamese.) In 1970, Bezellia and Samuel have a brief reunion interrupted by a vicious racist attack. The years pass in newspaper articles. By 2044, Bezellia has never married despite maintaining friendships with both singing star Ruddy and Nashville mayor Samuel. She’s become a philanthropist and written a novel about the namesake ancestor she has spent her life emulating—although it is odd, given the novel’s righteous stand against racism, that the original Bezellia’s claim to fame was fighting Indians. 

An off-putting mix of stereotypes and platitudes in an unconvincing plot.

Pub Date: Aug. 17, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-307-39503-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Shaye Areheart/Harmony

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2010

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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