CROSSING TO SAFETY

Stegner takes a long look back—at four decades of a foursome's life—in a novel that at moments is beguiling, though at others it labors for its theme. Larry Morgan and his wife Sally are young westerners who, one day in Depression-poor 1937, arrive in Madison, Wisconsin, where Larry is to take a one-year teaching post at the University of Wisconsin. Their lives are charmed and transformed when they become friends with Charity and Sid Lang, rich easterners whom the star-struck Morgans take to be the epitome of privilege, grace, and culture. A bosom friendship is formed between the two couples that is to last a lifetime, although that lifetime itself isn't to turn out as ideally as hoped. Success as a writer comes early to Larry Morgan, but his wife Sally is stricken by polio and made permanently a cripple. The elegant Sid Lang, meanwhile, is fired from his post at Madison, with the result that he and Charity (with children) are forced into retreat in the family's Kennedy-esque estate at Battell Pond, Vermont. There they wait out the years of WW II, and there it becomes increasingly clear (in the best sections of the book, which are rich, sure in tone, and reminiscent of, say, the reverberant delicacies of The Good Soldier) that the good Sid is in reality a weak and intellectually hapless man, and that wife Charity is in fact ruthlessly class-driven and relentlessly domineering. The novel ends in 1972, with a macabre reunion of the four friends in Vermont, as Charity orchestrates her own death (of cancer), compelling the others, in their varyingly crippled or exhausted states, to behave in the ways she sees as order-affirming and proper. Widely ambitious, the novel brings vividly to life certain quintessential moments and ideas—the idealistic moment between the Depression and WW II; the poetry-and-backpack rigor of the old New England intelligentsia. But Stegner clings to his theme of undying friendship beyond the point where his material keeps it alive, leading him to an often visibly artificial and conventionalized effort to push things along to their end. In all, less moving as a whole piece than highly remarkable for the fine penetration and achievement of some of its moments.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 1987

ISBN: 037575931X

Page Count: 372

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1987

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

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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