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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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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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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