Perhaps miracles are all we poor mortals have to forestall untimely ends, but in fiction one hopes for something more...


Screenwriter Elbling (Honey I Blew Up the Kids)—in disguise here as translator—offers up a clever tale, set in 16th-century Italy, of a peasant-turned-food-taster who survives by his wits, as well as by luck and a few twists of the incredible.

As a boy in rural Tuscany, Ugo watched his mother hang herself rather than die of the plague; later, his wife died in childbirth, leaving him to raise their daughter Miranda. His life might have met an equally brutish end were it not for the fact that Duke Federico, the local lord, on the point of impaling Ugo just for sport, was reminded that he had recently done away his food taster and needed a replacement. Thus elevated to an essential part of the Duke’s retinue, Ugo pulls through intrigues and attempted poisonings of the family of Federico’s wife, all the while protecting his beautiful, budding Miranda from defilers. But when the plague visits and carries off the Duke’s favorite whore, among countless others, Federico decides a change is in order and journeys to Milan in search of a new wife. There, Ugo falls in love with a fellow taster, the only woman to hold the job, but in his cleverness he persuades his peers that he survives by witchcraft, thereby enriching his master while increasing his own exposure to danger. The wife-search having failed, Federico returns home, where Ugo is horrified as his older brother, previously a bloodthirsty bandit, suddenly appears in court to exert a Rasputin-like influence over the Duke. When Federico selects Miranda as his bride-to-be, what lies ahead for Ugo is a disaster that nothing short of divine intervention can prevent.

Perhaps miracles are all we poor mortals have to forestall untimely ends, but in fiction one hopes for something more plausible.

Pub Date: May 1, 2001

ISBN: 1-57962-047-7

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Permanent Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2002

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

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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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


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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