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American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt

Karen Harper. Morrow, $15.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-274833-1

Harper (The It Girls) entices readers with this lively novel about wealthy American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. Forced into marriage by her mother, 18-year-old Consuelo marries Sunny, Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895. Embarking on her new life at Blenheim, the vast palace owned by the Churchills, Consuelo befriends villagers and tenants alike while Sunny spends her dowry to replenish Blenheim’s coffers. Sunny and Consuelo have two sons together, though he remains emotionally distant toward her. She later decides to live separately from him in London, enjoying her freedom, charity work, and friendship with Winston Churchill, one of Sunny’s cousins. Though Consuelo has crossed paths with French businessman Jacques Balsan during her marriage, it isn’t until she is separated that she is able to contemplate the possibility of a future with him. Harper’s story highlights how the wealth that prevented Consuelo from making her own decisions also enabled her to better the lives of those less fortunate. This immersive novel believably puts the reader in Consuelo’s shoes. Agent: Annelise Robey, Jane Rotrosen Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Savage Conversations

LeAnne Howe. Coffee House, $15.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-56689-531-6

Written in the form of a poetically infused play, Howe’s illuminating and challenging work draws its dramatic energy from the hanging of 38 members of the Dakota tribe in Mankato, Minn., on Dec. 26, 1862—the largest mass execution in American history—under the order of Abraham Lincoln. The narrative is set primarily in the Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Ill., in 1875 and features three characters: Mary Todd Lincoln, whom her son Robert had institutionalized there earlier that year; Savage Indian, a personification of the executed Dakotas and their tribe; and The Rope, an image of the U.S.’s tools of execution. Basing their interactions on Mary’s reported delusions of an Indian spirit who mauls her nightly, Howe (Choctalking on Other Realities) choreographs an intimate pas de deux between Mary, who excoriates her husband and family for their neglect, and the Savage Indian, a symbol of national guilt and injustice. Although revisionist in scope, Howe’s drama taps emotional undercurrents that course imperceptibly through conventional historical narratives. “We are a pair, you and I,/Relics to be studied,” says Mary to her Native American counterpart. Readers will be intrigued by the light this work shines on incidents behind the scenes of history. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret of Clouds

Alyson Richman. Berkley, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-1-984-80262-0

This devastating novel from Richman (The Velvet Hours) revolves around a sixth grade teacher and her relationship with a sickly child whom she tutors. In 1999, Maggie Topper leaves the hustle and bustle of the New York public relations world to become a teacher on Long Island. In her second year, she’s asked to tutor Yuri Krasny, whose congenital heart condition forces him to spend his life in bed and in seclusion at home. Finding common ground in baseball, the two connect, and Maggie becomes increasingly enchanted by Yuri, whose positive attitude belies his serious illness. Throughout, the author brings in the backstory of Yuri’s Ukrainian immigrant parents—his delicate mother’s quashed ballet career, his father’s persecution for being Jewish in the U.S.S.R.—that resulted in the family moving to the U.S. Meanwhile, Maggie’s six-year relationship with college boyfriend Bill implodes just as Daniel, a charismatic new music teacher, joins the faculty of her school. Their inevitable relationship is predictable, but this tear-jerker is bolstered by Richman’s perspective on how teachers and students can learn from each other, resulting in a heartening tale. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Where Reasons End

Yiyun Li. Random House, $25 (192p) ISBN 978-1-984817-37-2

This heart-wrenching experimental novel from Li (The Vagrants) is framed as a dialogue between a writer and Nikolai, the teenage son she lost to suicide. The novel’s title comes from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, and poetry is very much on the narrator’s mind, along with Alice in Wonderland and Wallace Stevens, as the freewheeling conversation turns toward such subjects as semantics, memory, the mechanics of grief, and a love that is “made not to last.” Notably absent is a full reconstruction of her son’s suicide (this isn’t that kind of book), though readers do get to hear the voice of Nikolai—a precocious poet, painter, and oboist. During a conversation with her son, the mother wonders, “What if we accept suffering as we do our hair or eye colors?” Like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Li’s novel tries to find a language to reckon with the unspeakable reality of death. The novel succeeds in Li’s approach of skirting the subject in favor of something between the dead’s nostalgia for life and regular small talk. This is a unique, poignant, and tender evocation of life as touched irrevocably by death. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Dragonfly Sea

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Knopf, $28.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-451-49404-7

In this sprawling, beautiful novel from Owuor (Dust), a real-life occurrence of a Kenyan woman travelling to China after learning of her Chinese heritage forms the backdrop for a moving story of loss and discovery. In 1992, on Pate Island, a small island off the coast of Kenya, six-year-old Ayaana spends her days scanning the seas for boats and the return of a father she never knew. One day, a “sun-blackened, salt-water-seared, bug-eyed and brawny” sailor appears and Ayaana chooses him for a father, much to his surprise—and to the chagrin of her mother. Then, years later, when cultural emissaries from China arrive at Pate, 20-year-old Ayaana discovers she is a descendent of one of the members abroad the ship of 14th-century mariner Admiral Zhang He, whose seafaring expeditions brought him to Africa, and agrees to set sail for China to be united with distant relatives. Once there, she serves as living justification for a commercial Chinese stake in an increasingly globalized Africa: “Cohabiting with shadows—here was the weight of a culture with a hulking history now preparing itself to digest her continent.” Attracting attention wherever she goes, Ayaana struggles to assimilate to Chinese culture and is as drawn to the sea as ever. Brilliantly capturing Ayaana’s sense of loss of her home and her family, as well as her hope for the future, Owuor’s mesmerizing prose lays bare the swirling global currents that Ayaana is trapped within. With a rollicking narrative and exceptional writing, this epic establishes Owuor as a considerable talent. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2018 | Details & Permalink

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