Alvarez’s generosity of vision compensates for the not-altogether-convincing central conceit of her sixth novel.


Keep the faith: That simple message inspires a novelist when she and her husband are taken hostage.

Depression has been dogging 50-year-old Alma Huebner for some time, though it has not affected her rock-solid marriage to Richard, an environmental-aid executive. Her work has been the casualty. She’s lost interest in the characters of the sequel to her Latino family saga, which sounds a bit like Alvarez’s own How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1992), just as Alma’s backstory of leaving the Dominican Republic for the U.S. when she was ten echoes that of the author. As an alternative to the sequel, Alma is feeling her way into the psyches of two people on a real-life historical mission: Francisco Balmis, who undertook a court-sanctioned smallpox expedition from Spain to the New World in 1803, and Isabel, head of an orphanage supplying 22 children as carriers of the vaccine. Alvarez alternates between Isabel’s first-person account of the mission and Alma’s life in Vermont, disrupted when Richard leaves for the Dominican Republic to set up a “green center” in the mountains. All this makes for a quiet first half; the action explodes at the midpoint. In Vermont, Alma defends cancer-stricken neighbor Helen from her crazy son and daughter-in-law, self-styled “ethical terrorists.” In the DR, Richard is taken hostage by gun-toting local kids who are convinced that the AIDS clinic attached to his center will spread the disease. (Irrationality thrives in both the First and Third Worlds.) When the Balmis expedition gets off to a shaky start in Puerto Rico, Isabel becomes the heart and soul of the team, smoothing ruffled feathers and protecting her boys—though her mother-hen clucking is overdone. Alma flies down to the DR and, using the courageous Isabel as her “moral compass,” has herself taken hostage too. Both the modern and historical ventures end tragically.

Alvarez’s generosity of vision compensates for the not-altogether-convincing central conceit of her sixth novel.

Pub Date: April 7, 2006

ISBN: 1-56512-510-X

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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