Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue’s best novel since Room (2010).

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THE PULL OF THE STARS

A nurse in a Dublin hospital battles the ordinary hazards of childbirth and the extraordinary dangers of the 1918 flu.

Donoghue began writing this novel during the 1918 pandemic’s centennial year, before COVID-19 gave it the grim contemporary relevance echoing through her text: signs warning, “IF IN DOUBT, DONT STIR OUT,” an overwhelmed hospital bedding patients on the floor, stores running out of disinfectant. These details provide a thrumming background noise to the central drama of women’s lives brought into hard focus by pregnancy and birth. Julia Power works in Maternity/Fever, a supply room converted to handle pregnant women infected with the flu. The disease makes labor and delivery even more high risk than normal. On Oct. 31, 1918, Julia arrives to learn that one of her patients died in the night, and over the next two days we see her cope with three harrowing deliveries, only one of which ends well. Donoghue depicts these deliveries in unflinching detail, but the gruesome particulars serve to underscore Julia’s heroic commitment to saving women and their babies in a world that does little for either. Her budding friendship with able new assistant Bridie Sweeney, one of the ill-treated “boarders” at a nearby convent, gives Julia a glimpse of how unwanted and illegitimate children are abused in Catholic Ireland. As far as she’s concerned, the common saying “She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve,” referring to children, reveals total indifference to women’s health and their children’s prospects. Donoghue isn’t a showy writer, but her prose sings with blunt poetry, as in the exchange between Julia and Bridie that gives the novel its title. Influenza gets its name from an old Italian belief that it was the influence of the stars that made you sick, Julia explains; Bridie responds, “As if, when it’s your time, your star gives you a yank.” Their relationship forms the emotional core of a story rich in swift, assured sketches of achingly human characters coping as best they can in extreme circumstances.

Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue’s best novel since Room (2010).

Pub Date: July 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-49901-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

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THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4926-8272-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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Groff’s trademarkworthy sentences bring vivid buoyancy to a magisterial story.

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MATRIX

Set in early medieval Europe, this book paints a rousing portrait of an abbess seizing and holding power.

After the spicy, structurally innovative Fates and Furies (2015), Groff spins back 850 years to a girl on a horse: “She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.” The inspiration is a historical figure, Marie de France, considered the first woman to write poetry in French. Groff gives her a fraught, lifelong, sexually charged tie to Eleanor of Aquitaine. A matrix, which comes from the Latin for mother, builds implacably between Eleanor and Marie. But in the first chapter, the queen rids the court of an ungainly, rustic Marie by installing her in a remote English convent, home to 20 starving nuns. The sisters hang the traveler’s clothes in the communal privy, where “the ammonia of the piss kills the beasties”—the lice. After a long sulk, Marie rouses herself to examine the abbey’s disastrous ledgers, mount her warhorse, and gallop forth to turn out the family most egregiously squatting on convent land. News spreads and the rents come in, “some grumbling but most half proud to have a woman so tough and bold and warlike and royal to answer to now.” The novel is at its best through Marie's early years of transforming the ruined, muddy convent, bit by bit, into a thriving estate, with a prosperous new scriptorium, brimming fields, and spilling flocks, protected by a forest labyrinth and spies abroad. In this way, Marie forestalls the jealous priests and village men plotting against her. Readers of Arcadia (2012), Groff’s brilliantly evocative hippie commune novel, will remember her gift for conjuring life without privacy. And she knows a snake always lurks within Eden. The cloister witnesses lust, sex, pregnancy, peril. Marie has visions of the Virgin Mary, 19 in all, but these passages stay flat. Medieval mystics, unsurprisingly, write better about mysticism. The gesture toward a lost theology based on Marie’s visions amounts to weak tea.

Groff’s trademarkworthy sentences bring vivid buoyancy to a magisterial story.

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59463-449-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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