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THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS

Not one of Hegi’s best, but this thoughtful writer’s work always merits attention.

A folklore-inflected tale focused on three mothers, a highly unusual group of nuns, and a chorus of Old Women who comment on everything.

The main narrative unfolds in the wake of a freak wave that breaks over the beach on the island of Nordstrand in August 1878, sweeping away Lotte and Martin Jansen’s three oldest children. Devastated and even unable to love their remaining baby, Wilhelm, Martin literally runs away with the circus, in this case the Ludwig Zirkus, a traveling band of free spirits in the harshly judgmental society of 19th-century Germany. Among its denizens is Sabine, abandoned by her husband and fiercely protective of her developmentally disabled daughter. Another Nordstrand refuge for misfits is the St. Margaret Home, founded by art-loving Sister Hildegunde, where nuns care for unmarried pregnant girls with love and without judgment. Grieving for her newborn given up for adoption, 11-year-old Tilli becomes Wilhelm’s wet nurse while he and his near-catatonic mother are temporarily staying with the nuns, and her devotion becomes an issue with Lotte. That’s a lot of plot to launch a novel, particularly since Hegi intersperses Sabine’s and St. Margaret’s backstories in chapters dating back to 1842. The Old Women’s interjections sometimes seem unnecessary, though it’s a pleasure to hear of them giving a brutal husband his comeuppance. Hegi’s contrast between the censorious, sanctimonious pillars of society and the kind, tolerant nuns and circus folk is a bit pat, particularly in both groups’ anachronistic acceptance of open homosexuality. The vaguely magical realist elements aren’t a strong point for this author, who has excelled in probing the moral complexities of both personal and political relations in such previous works as Children and Fire (2011) and Salt Dancers (1995). Still, her characters in this less satisfying book are still full-bodied, and their various conflicts lead to tender final resolutions for the three protagonists.

Not one of Hegi’s best, but this thoughtful writer’s work always merits attention.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-15682-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: March 28, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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THE FAMILIAR

Lush, gorgeous, precise language and propulsive plotting sweep readers into a story as intelligent as it is atmospheric.

In 16th-century Madrid, a crypto-Jew with a talent for casting spells tries to steer clear of the Inquisition.

Luzia Cotado, a scullion and an orphan, has secrets to keep: “It was a game she and her mother had played, saying one thing and thinking another, the bits and pieces of Hebrew handed down like chipped plates.” Also handed down are “refranes”—proverbs—in “not quite Spanish, just as Luzia was not quite Spanish.” When Luzia sings the refranes, they take on power. “Aboltar cazal, aboltar mazal” (“A change of scene, a change of fortune”) can mend a torn gown or turn burnt bread into a perfect loaf; “Quien no risica, no rosica” (“Whoever doesn’t laugh, doesn’t bloom”) can summon a riot of foliage in the depths of winter. The Inquisition hangs over the story like Chekhov’s famous gun on the wall. When Luzia’s employer catches her using magic, the ambitions of both mistress and servant catapult her into fame and danger. A new, even more ambitious patron instructs his supernatural servant, Guillén Santángel, to train Luzia for a magical contest. Santángel, not Luzia, is the familiar of the title; he has been tricked into trading his freedom and luck to his master’s family in exchange for something he no longer craves but can’t give up. The novel comes up against an issue common in fantasy fiction: Why don’t the characters just use their magic to solve all their problems? Bardugo has clearly given it some thought, but her solutions aren’t quite convincing, especially toward the end of the book. These small faults would be harder to forgive if she weren’t such a beautiful writer. Part fairy tale, part political thriller, part romance, the novel unfolds like a winter tree bursting into unnatural bloom in response to one of Luzia’s refranes, as she and Santángel learn about power, trust, betrayal, and love.

Lush, gorgeous, precise language and propulsive plotting sweep readers into a story as intelligent as it is atmospheric.

Pub Date: April 9, 2024

ISBN: 9781250884251

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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