Brilliant prose and piercing insights convey a dark but compelling view of human nature.

SECOND PLACE

Riffing on D.H. Lawrence’s famously fraught visit with Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico, Cusk chronicles a fictional woman’s attempt to find meaning in other people’s art.

Readers need not know anything about that literary-history byway, however, to enjoy this brooding tale. Highly praised for her recent, decidedly nonlinear Outline Trilogy, Cusk here rediscovers the joys of plot. Narrator M sets a dark tone with her opening recollection of how a meeting with the devil on a train leaving Paris opened her eyes to “the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things.” Then she pulls back to her encounter the day before with an exhibition of paintings by an artist she calls L that spoke of “absolute freedom” to “a young mother on the brink of rebellion.” Now, years later, divorced from her hypercritical first husband and a subsequent period of misery behind her, she is happily married to quiet, nurturing Tony and lives with him in “a place of great but subtle beauty” remote from the urban centers of whatever country this is. (Details are deliberately vague, but bravura descriptions of marshes and brambles evoke a fairy-tale landscape rather than New Mexico.) M clearly feels some dissatisfaction with this idyllic retreat since she writes to L through a mutual friend and invites him to stay in their “second place,” a ruined cottage they rebuilt as a long-term refuge for guests. After some coy back and forth, L turns up on short notice with an unannounced young girlfriend in tow, forcing M to move her 21-year-old daughter, Justine, and her boyfriend, Kurt, to the main house. L clearly knows that M wants something from him (Cusk elliptically suggests a desire to be welcomed into an imaginative life M feels inadequate to enter on her own) and is determined not to provide it. Increasingly tense interactions among the three couples form the seething undercurrent to M’s ongoing musings on art, truth, and reality. The inevitable big blowup is followed by reconciliations and relocations, capped by one of Cusk’s characteristically abrupt conclusions with a bitter letter from L.

Brilliant prose and piercing insights convey a dark but compelling view of human nature.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-374-27922-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

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: N/A

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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