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OUR LADY OF THE PRAIRIE

At first, Nissen’s narrator (Osprey Island, 2004, etc.) seems clever and voluble, so daring with her spanking-scene opener,...

Against the backdrop of the Bush-Kerry election, an Iowa Democrat has a midlife crisis that gives the tornadoes that rip through the state a run for their money.

The timing of Phillipa Maakestad’s decision to tell her husband about her passionate affair is unfortunate—the two theater professors are due to play parents of the bride at their daughter Ginny’s wedding to a wonderful Amish boy. The responsibility is torqued by the facts that his parents, who were close friends of Phillipa’s, were killed when an SUV hit their buggy and raising Ginny has been like a scene out of The Exorcist. Bulimic, addicted, promiscuous, filled with rage—Ginny has touched all the bases. After they get through the (literal) tornado that strikes the wedding, the Ginny problem is finally solved, though not for long. And by then, Phillipa herself has gone off the rails, living in a cheap motel, phoning in her classes, and freaking out about the election. If the author did not intend the Bush-era political ravings to be alienating, she overshot the mark. “Passing the monstrous W barn on 26, I wanted to drive up onto the grass, get out of my car, and hammer on the door, shouting ‘How do you live with yourselves? Why not put up an I’m a Greedy Bigot sign?'” Then, after a flash of self-awareness (I sound like Ginny! she thinks), she returns to form. “The miserable world into which I brought my own miserable child, now a miserable adult, fully aware and sickened to the marrow of her bones by the injustice of this godforsaken place, and as wholly incapable as her pathetic mother to do a goddamn thing about it. About anything. How does anyone with a conscience…do anything but cry, all day every day, navigating this godforsaken world.” This sort of thing, combined with random classist comments—on the baby of a woman she drives to the polls: “Travis: a name destined for the meth den”—seems designed to make the reader hate liberals. Throw in church-sign puns and musicals you can’t get out of your head and a whole mininovel about Nazis in France…whew.

At first, Nissen’s narrator (Osprey Island, 2004, etc.) seems clever and voluble, so daring with her spanking-scene opener, but eventually she wears a bit thin.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-328-66207-1

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD

Characters flip between bottomless self-regard and pitiless self-loathing while, as late as the second-to-last chapter, yet...

Four Chicago sisters anchor a sharp, sly family story of feminine guile and guilt.

Newcomer Lombardo brews all seven deadly sins into a fun and brimming tale of an unapologetically bougie couple and their unruly daughters. In the opening scene, Liza Sorenson, daughter No. 3, flirts with a groomsman at her sister’s wedding. “There’s four of you?” he asked. “What’s that like?” Her retort: “It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.” Thus begins a story bristling with a particular kind of female intel. When Wendy, the oldest, sets her sights on a mate, she “made sure she left her mark throughout his house—soy milk in the fridge, box of tampons under the sink, surreptitious spritzes of her Bulgari musk on the sheets.” Turbulent Wendy is the novel’s best character, exuding a delectable bratty-ness. The parents—Marilyn, all pluck and busy optimism, and David, a genial family doctor—strike their offspring as impossibly happy. Lombardo levels this vision by interspersing chapters of the Sorenson parents’ early lean times with chapters about their daughters’ wobbly forays into adulthood. The central story unfurls over a single event-choked year, begun by Wendy, who unlatches a closed adoption and springs on her family the boy her stuffy married sister, Violet, gave away 15 years earlier. (The sisters improbably kept David and Marilyn clueless with a phony study-abroad scheme.) Into this churn, Lombardo adds cancer, infidelity, a heart attack, another unplanned pregnancy, a stillbirth, and an office crush for David. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Grace perpetrates a whopper, and “every day the lie was growing like mold, furring her judgment.” The writing here is silky, if occasionally overwrought. Still, the deft touches—a neighborhood fundraiser for a Little Free Library, a Twilight character as erotic touchstone—delight. The class calibrations are divine even as the utter apolitical whiteness of the Sorenson world becomes hard to fathom.

Characters flip between bottomless self-regard and pitiless self-loathing while, as late as the second-to-last chapter, yet another pleasurable tendril of sisterly malice uncurls.

Pub Date: June 25, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54425-2

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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THEN SHE WAS GONE

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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