Powerful and uncompromising, yet radiant with love: this one's pretty close to a masterpiece.

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COAL RUN

Triumphantly fulfilling the promise of her bestselling debut (Back Roads, 2000), O’Dell examines the tangled, enduring bonds of family and community in a Pennsylvania mining town.

After 16 years in Florida, Ivan Zoschenko has come back to Coal Run as deputy to its easygoing sheriff, who seems unfazed by his crippled knee and heavy drinking. To the locals, Ivan is still the legendary college football player destined for the pros until he injured himself in a freak accident at the abandoned mine where his father and 96 other men died in an explosion when Ivan was 6. The sense of having let them down drove him to drink and to Florida, but as the story unfolds in a narrative that mingles present-day action with Ivan's memories, we realize that guilt over a graver misdeed also fuels his self-destructive behavior. Once again, O’Dell inhabits a male mind with sensitivity and acuity. Ivan's cluelessness about women would seem improbable if his first-person narration didn’t reveal emotional scars that blinker his probing intelligence. The author surrounds her hero with full-bodied, vividly rendered characters: his proudly sexual, fiercely independent sister; the Vietnam vet he adored as a boy; his uncomplaining mother, irreparably wounded by her beloved husband’s death; and Reese Raynor, Ivan’s dark shadow, who beat his young wife into a coma and whose release from jail propels the plot. O’Dell doesn’t soften the lasting damage inflicted on Coal Run and its inhabitants by the J&P Coal Company (all the more contemptible because the characters take it for granted), but against it she sets a passionate affirmation of the communal ties that send the local doctor out to give vaccinations to poor kids and bring everyone to the old mine each year for a memorial service to the dead miners. The tendency to melodrama that occasionally marred her first book is transformed here into a searing tragic vision of working-class people whose dignity comes from stoically doing their jobs, a phrase repeated with increasing resonance as the novel closes with the suggestion that Ivan can now move toward reconciliation with the past and hope for the future.

Powerful and uncompromising, yet radiant with love: this one's pretty close to a masterpiece.

Pub Date: July 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-670-89995-X

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

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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 strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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