Uncharacteristically dull work from one of contemporary literature’s most interesting and entertaining writers.

THE SEALED LETTER

In her third historical novel, Donoghue (Landing, 2007, etc.) portrays a sordid Victorian divorce that roiled the women’s suffrage movement.

Emily Faithfull, known to her friends as “Fido,” thinks she’s comfortably settled as the proprietor of the Victoria Press, which trains women as typesetters and printers, and as a respected member of England’s nascent feminist leadership. But back into her life in the stifling London summer of 1864 comes the disruptive Helen Codrington, once Fido’s most intimate friend, but absent for seven years in Malta, where Helen’s husband was posted with the Royal Navy. The faltering Codrington marriage created an awkward breach in their friendship, and Helen claims never to have received the letters Fido sent her in Malta. Readers, however, will know this is a crock long before embittered Vice-Admiral Harry Codrington tells her that Helen mockingly tossed aside the missives with a wisecrack about lonely spinsters. The fact that Fido is oblivious to her beloved friend’s manipulative, scheming ways is only the most obvious problem with a sluggish tale possessing little of the deeply imagined period atmosphere of Life Mask (2004) and Slammerkin (2001), let alone the author’s usual sharp observations. The carefully drawn characters are dreary, as is the narrative, despite Helen’s adulterous trysts and Fido’s unjust ostracism by her feminist comrades. Even the climactic trial, complete with sleazy lawyers making insinuations about lesbian amour, is curiously flat. We would feel sorrier for Fido if she weren’t so clearly self-deluded, and the adulterous Helen is a particularly uninteresting villain. A last-minute revelation, apparently meant to be a bombshell, will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading carefully, and the sealed letter of the title proves to be an irritating red herring. Taking off from real-life characters and actual historical events has energized the author in the past, but Donoghue is just going through the motions here.

Uncharacteristically dull work from one of contemporary literature’s most interesting and entertaining writers.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-15-101549-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2008

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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