A heartening recovery of form after the meretricious Tomcat in Love (1998). Once again, O’Brien proves he’s capable of being...

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JULY, JULY

The memories and the revised relationships stimulated by a college reunion produce a mixed bag of individual stories in this involving and beautifully written eighth novel from veteran author O’Brien, still best known for his award-winning Going for Cacciato (1978).

There’s an echo of The Big Chill at the start as graduates of a small Minnesota college’s class of 1969 gather on a hot July weekend. The opening pages briefly introduce pivotal characters, then the story settles into juxtapositions of the present situation against tales of separate and shared pasts. We know at the outset that unmarried Karen Burns has recently been murdered and that good-natured dentist Harmon Osterberg drowned while on summer vacation. Further details emerge as O’Brien patiently connects their histories, as well as those of several others. Ageless sexpot “Spook” (Caroline) Spinelli, who’s already managing two husbands, turns her attentions to obese, ever romantically hopeful mop-and-broom mogul Marv Bertel. Embittered divorcées Amy Robinson and Jan Huebner recall their unhappy sexual experiences, while functioning as a venomous two-woman Greek chorus. Happily married Ellie Abbott and presumably celibate woman pastor Paulette Haslo cope awkwardly with unsheddable emotional burdens. In a perfectly controlled dual story, cancer-victim and conservative matron Dorothy Stier reconsiders her refusal to move to Canada in 1969 with draft-dodger Billy McCann, who has never forgiven her failure of nerve. And in sequences that show O’Brien at his most assured, former baseball phenom and Vietnam vet amputee David Todd struggles heroically to live with his several disabilities, including the (brilliantly imagined) “voice” in his head and his unquenchable love for the woman who returned his affection but couldn’t live with him. Though its parts are of unequal interest and excellence, July, July powerfully dramatizes the long, lingering aftermath of what had seemed to those who grew up during it, a veritable year of wonders (“Man on the moon, those amazing Mets. We had to believe”).

A heartening recovery of form after the meretricious Tomcat in Love (1998). Once again, O’Brien proves he’s capable of being one of our brightest and best novelists.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-618-03969-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2002

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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SUCH A FUN AGE

The relationship between a privileged White mom and her Black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a Black boy hoping to go with a White girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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