The beating hearts of Patterson’s characters and the directness of her voice make the grim material bearable, sometimes...

THE SECRET HABIT OF SORROW

The West Coast characters inhabiting these 16 stories from Patterson (The Little Brother, 2015) vary in age and socio-economic status, but all are caught in an acute struggle against emotional loss and personal failure.

“How To Lose”—about an infertile woman experiencing the intense anxiety of maternal love for her orphaned 8-year-old nephew as he learns to swim—sets the bittersweet tone for the stories that follow. In “Vandals,” a lonely, long-divorced attorney finally faces the fact that his ex-wife and son have “moved on.” The wife in “DC” accepts responsibility for torpedoing a decent 23-year marriage with a meaningless affair, unlike the philandering but still devoted ex-husband in “Paris.” Bad choices and addiction are common here, but Patterson’s unfussy prose draws the reader into her complex, sometimes even convoluted relationships. For instance in “Confetti,” a fired lecturer who has degenerated into an alcoholic bum upends her former lover’s quiet professorial life one way after another. The earnest young single mother of "Half-Truth,” who finds herself inexorably drawn back into a perilous relationship with her 6-year-old son’s worthless, drug-addled father, exemplifies Patterson’s ability to create characters whose abilities to feel deeply make them sympathetic despite their emotional and ethical failures. Patterson sometimes plays with the importance of secrecy in relationships. In “Johnny Hitman,” a heroin addict and a born-again Christian maintain a guarded friendship without directly confronting the childhood sexual trauma that has shaped their twisted intimacy. A similar secret besets the multigenerational family in “Visitations.” Optimism flickers in “Fledglings,” “Dogs,” "Parking Far Away,” and “We Know Things,” as young women show signs of growing beyond their traumas. The final two stories return to bittersweet territory. "Appetite” follows the faltering friendship between a former ballerina and a secretary who is discovering her own creative voice; “Nobody’s Business” focuses without sentimentality on a teenage boy learning to accept outside support and possible love while caring for his dying mother.

The beating hearts of Patterson’s characters and the directness of her voice make the grim material bearable, sometimes almost hopeful.

Pub Date: July 17, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-64009-052-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2018

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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