Vivid historical background wasted on unengaging fiction.

BRIDE OF NEW FRANCE

Desrochers’ debut follows a spirited young woman from a grim charity hospital in 17th-century Paris to the equally challenging Canadian wilderness.

Snatched from her parents by a law that forbids begging on the city streets, the best Laure Beauséjour can hope for as an inmate of Salpêtrière Hospital is that her nimble fingers will get her a job with a seamstress, where she can assess single men for their marriageability. She has no interest in the cloistered life, unlike her pious friend Madeleine, who aspires only to become one of the nuns who oversee the hospital’s indigent women with varying degrees of severity. But when Laure’s ill-judged letter to the king complaining of their treatment results in her being sent to Canada, she persuades Madeleine to join her in the contingent of unruly women destined to atone for their sins by marrying settlers and providing population for New France. The improbable scene in which Madeleine decides to cast her lot with Laure is only one instance of the awkward tone and sketchy motivations that indicate a beginning novelist throughout this oddly conceived and structured narrative. With nearly half the text devoted to Laure’s experiences in Paris and the voyage to the New World, the author fails to provide sufficient time and emotional weight for the ordeal in the Canadian wilderness, where the protagonist reluctantly marries an odious fur trader but finds herself drawn to one of the natives the French scornfully call Savages. Desrochers, who drew her fictional inspiration from her research for a masters’ thesis at York University on the subject of female immigration, certainly conveys the bleak conditions endured by French settlers, particularly in the stark depiction of Laure facing starvation during her first Canadian winter. But she fails to bring to life any of the characters other than willful Laure, and her self-absorbed heroine is hard to like.

Vivid historical background wasted on unengaging fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-07337-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

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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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