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THE VOLCANO LOVER

The first novel in over 20 years by America's preeminent belletrist is a historical tour de force. This tale of 18th-century romance and revolution is certain to charm readers who enjoy the postmodern potboilers of Umberto Eco and A.S. Byatt. After a pretentious prologue about her role as author, Sontag dives into the grand drama of the English nobleman William Hamilton, ambassador to the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, the Bourbon monarchy based in Naples. "Il Cavaliere," as he's called by his hosts, fancies himself "an envoy of decorum and reason" to the grotesque King. Where Sir William delights in collecting art and artifacts, and exploring the great volcano at Vesuvius, the fat King devotes himself to gluttony and impregnating his ambitious wife. After the Cavaliere's frail wife dies at age 44, the melancholic ambassador returns to England, where he grows infatuated with his nephew's mistress, a stunning beauty from the lower classes who mixes charm with vulgarity. Seeking a wealthy wife, the nephew passes his mistress to his uncle, now back in Naples. And soon follows a scandalous marriage between the 56-year- old ambassador and the 20-year-old lady of dubious virtue. A quick study, as well as a much-painted subject, Lady Emma Hamilton becomes the toast of Naples and the Queen's confidante. Her fall into infamy begins when she meets the hero of the age, Lord Nelson, "the saviour of the royalist cause." In outline, this seems little more than the Vivien Leigh melodrama That Hamilton Woman. But Sontag adds such historical texture to her saga of sexual intrigue that it all comes to sordid life, full of passion and politics. Her warts-and-all version of history relies on a profound imagining of each character's point of view. At once heady and heartfelt, this is Sontag's best bid for a popular audience.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-28516-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1992

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

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. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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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. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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