ZERO TOLERANCE

In sinuous, murky first fiction from ex-Harvard lit prof Richards (Imperial Archive, etc., not reviewed), the memory of Vietnam continues to plague the lives of four people who were involved in the failure, in 1973, of a massive dam built to control the mighty Mekong River. Thinking his brother, an outsider, can unravel the tangled threads of their stories, Harper, one of the four, persuades the emphatic Gailly to listen. Complex memories of other rivers and dams color each person's Vietnam connection: Harper's memories have to do with an idyllic riverside life that ended when the Monongahela was dammed, flooding his Pennsylvania home. He eventually became the commander of an armada of gunboats, patrolling the Mekong on the day the dam went into service. Petard, an American Indian and the project's chief engineer, who saved Harper's life, first became obsessed with dams when his tribe was displaced by one on the Klamath River; revenge drives him to engineering school and a career with the Bureau of Reclamation, where he quietly works to sabotage projects. Travers, a brilliant Harvard entomologist whose ideas of insect behavior fueled the Bureau's decision to dam the Mekong, finds his opposition to the dam shaped by the ancestral memories of a female Puritan forebear whose heretical notions of altruism he has unwittingly embraced. And photographer Jenna, whose images of the dam showed deep cracks where none were otherwise visible, had her feelings shaped by contact with the French dam builder Defosse, who believed that ritual human sacrifice was required to preserve a dam. Not until Gailly gets the skinny from the Bureau's director, however, can he make sense of the mix of anger, obsession, and arrogance that contributed to the dam's catastrophic failure. Often reminiscent of an exercise in multidimensional puzzle- solving, Richards's fiction debut is as alluring as it is mind- bending. Too bad that in the end the revelations accumulated here, like the imaginary dam that brought them together, fail to hold water.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-374-29662-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1996

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

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A LITTLE LIFE

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. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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