By Frederick Lewis AllenHarper
The Lake Shore Limited
Sue Miller’s latest piece of domestic realism scrutinizes the feelings of two men and two women, all of whom have reached an age at which choices have been made and doors have closed. The struggle to become is over; they must figure out how to live with themselves the way they are. This is Miller’s 9/11 novel—literally, in that the women lose a man who was brother to one, lover to the other, in a plane that hit the World Trade Center; and figuratively, in that the novel’s two male protagonists each suffer a grievous and grossly untimely loss through circumstances well beyond their control. Their responses to these events, of course, both reflect and form their characters, and Miller’s skill lies in inspecting evenhandedly every crumb of this nuanced and gradual process. Unfortunately, such impartial and thorough care, coupled with Miller’s flat prose, also results in stretches of tedium.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
In this charming and wistful novel about a family in disintegration, a young girl discovers to her distress that she can taste the emotions of those who prepare what she eats. Her first-person voice recalls the heroine’s in An Invisible Sign of My Own, Bender’s first novel; tentative but persistent, she studies her world with the curiosity and thoroughness of a scientist but records her observations with the eye and ear of a poet. She manages in the end to harness her exquisite, bizarre sensitivity, in this haunting examination of the ways in which people, driven by their own needs, can fail even those they most wish to nurture.
Alone With You
Simon & Schuster
The wide range of settings and characters in these eight stories attests to Marisa Silver’s prodigious imagination. Her focus is the complexity of people’s closest relationships and the ambivalence they feel for those they love best. “Love” here can comprise a “mixture of frustration and gratitude and hatred and tolerance and surprising, intractable, illogical attachment,” and Silver fixes on the inevitable compromises love demands. Her style is breezy, and its clever snap can be captivating, but it can make the reader’s footing unsure. Still, that style, and Silver’s observations, can be spot-on: “The ends of his sentences rose up uncertainly in the fashion of American teenagers, as if he wanted to shirk responsibility for his thoughts.”
The Friends of Eddie Coyle: 40th Anniversary Edition
George V. Higgins
In 1970, George V. Higgins was a federal prosecutor who had worked in various organized-crime units when he published this, his first novel, about the downfall of a broken, doomed small-time Boston hoodlum. Now we have the 40th-anniversary reissue of Higgins’s masterpiece, with a new introduction, by Dennis Lehane (the 30th-anniversary edition had an introduction by Elmore Leonard, who declared the book “the best crime novel ever written”). Listening to countless hours of wiretaps and doubtless reading thousands of pages of transcripts, Higgins developed an ear for dialogue—a finely honed sense of idiom and, more important, of the mental processes and shortcuts, what he called “the patterns of elision and compression that people use.” Here he deploys dialogue—which makes up perhaps 80 percent of the novel—brilliantly, to convey action and narrative, mores and social background, and above all, character (Norman Mailer appositely wrote that Higgins may be “the American writer who is closest to Henry Green”). The result: a spare, jagged, supremely efficient novel (183 pages) that, although utterly lacking in exposition, lays bare an entire world of workaday lowlifes trying to get by on the fringes of organized crime. As bleak as it is absorbing, this great novel probably imparts just one lesson: as one of its characters, the gunrunner Jackie Brown (Tarantino always acknowledges his debts), says, “This life’s hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.”
A Kid for Two Farthings
This richly colored novella—part of a series of six quirky and delicious forgotten British novels set in the early and middle 20th century and recently reissued as The Bloomsbury Group—juxtaposes sweet, childish wishes with the pitiless grind and grime of daily life in London’s East End Jewish quarter. (It’s worth reading for the description of the old Club Row Market alone, with its herring women and singing-bird man and jellied-eel stand.) Told mostly from the point of view of a 6-year-old who buys what he believes is a unicorn, it asserts the power of care and kindness without succumbing to sentimentality.