A replete and readable portrayal of a fascinating character, and an all-around terrific novel.

THE YEARS WITH LAURA DÍAZ

A century’s worth of Mexican culture and politics is observed through the prism of the life of the eponymous protagonist of this big novel, the most lucid and satisfying fiction of Fuentes’s 40-year career (The Crystal Frontier, 1997, etc.).

“The years with Laura Díaz” (which begin in 1905) are “remembered” (as a framing prologue and epilogue reveal) by a young artist who imagines the life of the famous beauty he sees depicted in a mural, then by the descendant who vows he’ll tell her story. Early chapters concentrate on the (often romantic) history of Laura’s aristocratic German-Mexican family, her fascination with an imposing statue of a suffering woman (a resonant omen) encountered in a forest, marriage to an older man devoted to the Mexican Revolution and particularly the sufferings of the working classes, and her flirtation (made possible by the Díaz’s social connections) with Mexico City’s artistic circle. The story picks up considerable steam when Laura becomes an intimate of painter Frida Kahlo and her artist husband Diego Rivera (brought splendidly to life), stalls a bit during her long affair with Spanish diplomat and left-wing activist Jorge Maura (a true believer who’s a bit of a dull dog, for all his emoting and posturing), and recovers nicely when Fuentes focuses on Laura’s combative-loving relationships with her always-preoccupied husband (to whom she nevertheless always returns) and their contrasting sons: frail, sensitive Santiago (the namesake and image of Laura’s beloved half-brother, an early martyr to the Revolution) and extroverted (ironically named) Danton, whose rampant careerism blandly sidesteps all his family’s conflicting ideals. Even better are the final 200 pages, in which Laura becomes involved with American refugees from McCarthyite persecution (including the guilt-ridden film producer who becomes her latest lover), then finds in her 60s the perfect outlet for her complex energies, as well as “independence and fame,” as a successful photojournalist.

A replete and readable portrayal of a fascinating character, and an all-around terrific novel.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-374-29341-4

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2000

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A clever and current book about a complicated woman and her romantic relationships.

CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS

The story of the entangled affairs of a group of exceedingly smart and self-possessed creative types.

Frances, an aloof and intelligent 21-year-old living in Dublin, is an aspiring poet and communist. She performs her spoken-word pieces with her best friend and ex-lover, Bobbi, who is equally intellectual but gregarious where Frances is shy and composed where Frances is awkward. When Melissa, a notable writer and photographer, approaches the pair to offer to do a profile of them, they accept excitedly. While Bobbi is taken with Melissa, Frances becomes infatuated by her life—her success, her beautiful home, her actor husband, Nick. Nick is handsome and mysterious and, it turns out, returns Frances’ attraction. Although he can sometimes be withholding of his affection (he struggles with depression), they begin a passionate affair. Frances and Nick’s relationship makes difficult the already tense (for its intensity) relationship between Frances and Bobbi. In the midst of this complicated dynamic, Frances is also managing endometriosis and neglectful parents—an abusive, alcoholic father and complicit mother. As a narrator, Frances describes all these complex fragments in an ethereal and thoughtful but self-loathing way. Rooney captures the mood and voice of contemporary women and their interpersonal connections and concerns without being remotely predictable. In her debut novel, she deftly illustrates psychology’s first lesson: that everyone is doomed to repeat their patterns.

A clever and current book about a complicated woman and her romantic relationships.

Pub Date: July 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-451-49905-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2017

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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

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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