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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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