A heartening recovery of form after the meretricious Tomcat in Love (1998). Once again, O’Brien proves he’s capable of being...

JULY, JULY

The memories and the revised relationships stimulated by a college reunion produce a mixed bag of individual stories in this involving and beautifully written eighth novel from veteran author O’Brien, still best known for his award-winning Going for Cacciato (1978).

There’s an echo of The Big Chill at the start as graduates of a small Minnesota college’s class of 1969 gather on a hot July weekend. The opening pages briefly introduce pivotal characters, then the story settles into juxtapositions of the present situation against tales of separate and shared pasts. We know at the outset that unmarried Karen Burns has recently been murdered and that good-natured dentist Harmon Osterberg drowned while on summer vacation. Further details emerge as O’Brien patiently connects their histories, as well as those of several others. Ageless sexpot “Spook” (Caroline) Spinelli, who’s already managing two husbands, turns her attentions to obese, ever romantically hopeful mop-and-broom mogul Marv Bertel. Embittered divorcées Amy Robinson and Jan Huebner recall their unhappy sexual experiences, while functioning as a venomous two-woman Greek chorus. Happily married Ellie Abbott and presumably celibate woman pastor Paulette Haslo cope awkwardly with unsheddable emotional burdens. In a perfectly controlled dual story, cancer-victim and conservative matron Dorothy Stier reconsiders her refusal to move to Canada in 1969 with draft-dodger Billy McCann, who has never forgiven her failure of nerve. And in sequences that show O’Brien at his most assured, former baseball phenom and Vietnam vet amputee David Todd struggles heroically to live with his several disabilities, including the (brilliantly imagined) “voice” in his head and his unquenchable love for the woman who returned his affection but couldn’t live with him. Though its parts are of unequal interest and excellence, July, July powerfully dramatizes the long, lingering aftermath of what had seemed to those who grew up during it, a veritable year of wonders (“Man on the moon, those amazing Mets. We had to believe”).

A heartening recovery of form after the meretricious Tomcat in Love (1998). Once again, O’Brien proves he’s capable of being one of our brightest and best novelists.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-618-03969-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2002

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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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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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