SOPHIE'S CHOICE

More than once in this smugly autobiographical novel, Styron pouts about how his last book, The Confessions of Nat Turner, drew accusations of exploitation, accusations that "I had turned to my own profit and advantage the miseries of slavery." And Sophie's Choice will probably draw similar accusations about Styron's use of the Holocaust: his new novel often seems to be a strong but skin-deep psychosexual melodrama that's been artificially heaped with import by making one of the characters—Sophie—a concentration-camp survivor. Her full name is Sophie Zawistowska, and she's the only other non-Jewish tenant in the Flatbush boarding house where narrator "Stingo," the young Styron, comes to attempt his first novel in 1947 after a brief nightmare as a reader at McGraw-Hill. Virtually virginal Stingo, of course, lusts like crazy after gorgeously 30-ish Sophie, but she is noisily, hotly in love with Nathan Landau, the brilliant, erratic biologist who nursed immigrant Sophie back to health after meeting her in the library. Soon Nathan, Sophie, and Stingo are a bouncy threesome, smiling together through Coney Island picnics or suffering together whenever Nathan has one of his irrational, jealous, abusive fits. And Sophie begins to reveal to Stingo, layer by layer, her guilty secrets: how she was both victim and accomplice at Auschwitz, playing the role of anti-Semite to ingratiate herself with officials; how she was willing to use her body to gain advantages; how she was forced to choose which of her two young children would die in the gas chamber. These reminiscences give Styron an opportunity to expound on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and to give the novel an ostensible unity: "Someday I will write about Sophie's life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world." But Sophie's death—a suicide pact with Nathan (who's soon exposed as a certifiable lunatic) after a brief but elaborate roll in the hay with Stingo—is only tenuously linked to the evil of Auschwitz; it's more in the good old Southern-gothic tradition. And when Styron tells us that Stingo has learned through Sophie about "death, and pain, and loss, and the appalling enigma of human existence," the pomposity seems unsupported, unearned by Stingo/Styron. Lesser problems too: the clumsy narrative shifts in the Auschwitz flashbacks, the impossibly ornate dialogue, the self-dramatizing, the diminishing returns of Styron's "encyclopedic ability to run on and on about a subject." Still, with all that said, Styron is a born writer, and when he's just storytelling—and not playing the dubious role of Great American Writer and Thinker—there's enough detailed, vigorous, sheer readability here to sustain even some of those readers bound to be turned off by the sticky contrivances and hollow pretentions.

Pub Date: June 11, 1976

ISBN: 0679736379

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1979

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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