Lyrical, funny, smart, and heartbreaking.

AMERICAN ESTRANGEMENT

Seven thematically linked stories that explore the lonely schisms in American life.

Estrangement, the act of being separate from a person or group with whom you were once close, is the definitive condition of Sayrafiezadeh’s America and the binding agent of his lyrical, funny, and disquieting collection. In “Scenic Route,” a couple so incompatible that they're dumped by their couples counselor try to heal their relationship by driving together across the United States…except the states are not united; visas are necessary; the state lines are guarded by border patrol agents; and as the couple progress westward, they encounter increasing antagonism, some of it generated by their incompatibility, the rest by the xenophobic land in which they once, as fellow Americans, belonged. In “Fairground”—another dystopian romp—our narrator is taken to a public hanging at age 6 or 7 or 8 by Mr. Montgomery, his stepfather at the time. Why go to a hanging? Because going to executions “was what fathers did with sons.” The hanging is in the high school football arena, and Mr. Montgomery buys the narrator a “jumbo-sized” popcorn and excitedly explains “how in his day they didn’t have hangings, but shot the condemned instead. In his father’s day, they were beheaded with silver sabers, and so on down the line: guns, swords, poison, fire.” Meanwhile, the narrator muses about Mr. Montgomery’s impermanence in his life, which is obvious to him if not to Mr. Montgomery. Sayrafiezadeh’s collection is mostly masterful and always fun, but its final story, “A Beginner’s Guide to Estrangement,” may be its most affecting. Here our narrator is Danush Jamshid, aka Danny McDade, who is nearly 35 years old and has seen his biological father only twice in the last 30 years. Now, despite the State Department’s level 4 travel advisory, he has flown into Tehran to visit his aging father. But given the fraught political history between the U.S. and Iran, and given the fact that Danny’s father abandoned Danny and his mother…well, both parties know this reunion, which is supposed to last just five days, constitutes their last chance to build what could have been a lifelong relationship. An elegy for a more united past? A warning against a less united future? A lyrical sequence of stories about infinitely various forms of personal and familial and political estrangement that we fragile humans allow to define our lives? All of the above? Check.

Lyrical, funny, smart, and heartbreaking.

Pub Date: Aug. 10, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-393-54123-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 2, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2021

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A novel of capacious intelligence and plenty of page-turning emotional drama.

BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU

Two erudite Irishwomen struggle with romance against the backdrop of the Trump/Brexit years.

Eileen and Alice have been friends since their university days. Now in their late 20s, Eileen works as an editorial assistant at a literary magazine in Dublin. Alice is a famous novelist recovering from a psychiatric hospitalization and staying in a large empty rectory on the west coast of Ireland. Since Alice’s breakdown, the two have kept in touch primarily through lengthy emails that alternate between recounting their romantic lives and working through their angst about the current social and political climate. (In one of these letters, Eileen laments that the introduction of plastic has ruined humanity’s aesthetic calibration and in the next paragraph, she’s eager to know if Alice is sleeping with the new man she’s met.) Eileen has spent many years entangled in an occasionally intimate friendship with her teenage crush, a slightly older man named Simon who is a devout Catholic and who works in the Irish Parliament as an assistant. As Eileen and Simon’s relationship becomes more complicated, Alice meets Felix, a warehouse worker who is unsure what to make of her fame and aloofness. In many ways, this book, a work of both philosophy and romantic tragicomedy about the ways people love and hurt one another, is exactly the type of book one would expect Rooney to write out of the political environment of the past few years. But just because the novel is so characteristic of Rooney doesn’t take anything away from its considerable power. As Alice herself puts it, “Humanity on the cusp of extinction [and] here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?”

A novel of capacious intelligence and plenty of page-turning emotional drama.

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-374-60260-4

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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A SLOW FIRE BURNING

A young man has been stabbed to death on a houseboat...that much is clear.

Hawkins' third novel, after her smash debut with The Girl on the Train (2015) and a weak follow-up with Into the Water (2017), gets off to a confusing start. A series of vignettes introduce numerous characters—Irene, Deidre, Laura, Miriam, Daniel (dead), Carla, Theo, Angela (dead)—all of whom live or lived in a very small geographical area and have overlapping connections and reasons to be furious at each other. We can all agree that the main question is who killed Daniel, the 23-year-old on the houseboat, but it is soon revealed that his estranged mother had died just a few weeks earlier—a drunk who probably fell, but maybe was pushed, down the stairs—and his cousin also fell to his death some years back. Untimely demise runs in the family. The highlight of these goings-on is Laura, a tiny but ferocious young woman who was seen running from Daniel's boat with blood on her mouth and clothes the last night he was alive. Physically and mentally disabled by an accident in her childhood, Laura is so used to being accused and wronged (and actually she is quite the sticky fingers) that she's not surprised when she's hauled in for Daniel's murder, though she's pretty sure she didn't do it. The secondary crimes and subplots include abduction, sexual assault, hit-and-run, petty larceny, plagiarism, bar brawling, breaking and entering, incest, and criminal negligence, and on top of all this there's a novel within a novel that mirrors events recalled in flashback by one of the characters. When Irene reads it, she's infuriated by "all the to-ing and fro-ing, all that jumping around in the timeline....Just start at the beginning, for god's sake. Why couldn't people just tell a story straight any longer, start to finish?" Hmmmmm.

Overkill.

Pub Date: Aug. 31, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1123-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: June 2, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2021

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