A jaundiced view of post-communist chaos. No heroism, no transcendence, just all-too-human desperation.



Living out a dull, bad dream of botched politics, the stunted characters in these novellas exist in a no-man’s-land, halfway between the failed utopia of Chairman Mao and the promise of McDonald’s, Macintosh and MTV.

Gingerly, resentfully, a churlish young writer negotiates the task of helping his girlfriend’s ailing father pee into a bottle. It’s a humdrum humiliation for all concerned, but one that’s finally rewarded with “the poignant tinkle of water on plastic.” Of such small things, Zhu Wen, a leading light of the “New Generation” of Chinese writers who came of age in the shadow of Tiananmen Square, crafts bitter, tragicomic, poetic fiction. “A Hospital Night” isn’t much, plot-wise: Sick old man rages at smug youth. But the Worker’s Hospital where the action’s set functions fine as metaphor—nothing works there. Filial piety, the Confucian ideal, is a bankrupt mockery, and socialist camaraderie is a joke. The title story is even bleaker. Another callow writer goes trolling with his father for teenaged whores. Dad’s a mildly amiable tippler; the son’s an absolute cad, shacking up with a divorced older woman and then cheating on her. A sexaholic, he’s materialism run amuck: “If we’re not getting any otherwise and it’s being sold on the market, why shouldn’t we go and buy some?” “Pounds, Ounces, Meat” achieves a kind of Chekhovian surrealism: Yet one more disgruntled youngster, after falling for a girl “carrying a black parasol and a copy of I Love Dollars,” embarks on a quest to determine the true value of a pork filet. In the author’s China, everything’s a mess, from the drifting Yangtze River steamer in “A Boat Crossing” to the fouled-up factory in “Ah, Xiao Xie.”

A jaundiced view of post-communist chaos. No heroism, no transcendence, just all-too-human desperation.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2007

ISBN: 0-231-13694-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2006

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.


Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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