Makkai strikes a smartly absurdist tone as her characters nervously await impending doom from the uneventful Y2K bug, but...

THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE

Two married couples find themselves cohabitating in a guesthouse on the rich—and possibly haunted—estate of Laurelfield, once an artist and writer’s colony.

In her sophomore novel (The Borrower, 2011), which starts in 1999 and rewinds in four parts through the decades to 1900, Makkai takes us on a tour of the house's power over its owners and the artist residents of decades past. She first closely follows the marriage of Doug and Zee, which has been upended by financial concerns and unfulfilled career ambitions. Cash-strapped, they have moved to a house on Zee’s mother’s estate in order for Doug to finish his monograph on the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was luckily once a resident of the artist’s colony. But secretly, instead of doing his work, Doug is writing books in a formulaic middle-grade series for a couple of grand a pop. Zee, a Marxist theorist in the English department at the local college, is desperate to get her husband a job and sabotages the career of a curmudgeonly older professor in hopes that Doug will get his spot. Meanwhile, the owner of the estate, Zee’s mother, Grace, allows her second husband's son, Case, and daughter-in-law, Miriam, to move into the guesthouse with Doug and Zee, further weakening an already fraying relationship. These guests of Laurelfield are complex, trapped not only by the estate, which has a complicated history and dark secrets of its own, but by their own problems and decisions; as Makkai explains, “They had come to Laurelfield to face their lives and their marriage and the end of the millennium. Any number of explosive things.”

Makkai strikes a smartly absurdist tone as her characters nervously await impending doom from the uneventful Y2K bug, but while the novel is both funny and smart at times, Makkai fails to make the estate the foreboding character it needs to be to both ground and uproot these privileged characters who can't see how lucky they are and how self-absorbed their lives have become.

Pub Date: July 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-525-42668-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

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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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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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