Nan Goldberg

Jane Hamilton writes lovely, thoughtful books about trying to take life as you find it, dealing realistically with harsh, immutable truths and surviving in spite of them. In her first novel, The Book of Ruth, the main character learns to transcend the dismal future that her abusive family history portended. In A Map of the World, a moment of neglect results in the death of a child, and the woman who is responsible must learn to live with herself.

In The Short History of a Prince, Walter McCloud is faced with a double whammy: the death of his brother and his own homosexuality. Walter is 15 years old on the day this novel starts, the day his older brother's illness is discovered. Daniel will die of it about a year later. And Walter is agonizingly aware that Daniel is the heterosexual son, the one who'd have produced grandchildren for his parents, the one who'd have stayed close to home. Home where to find it, how to get there is and remains the big issue in Walter's life. Home is where Walter imagines he might achieve a sense of belonging whether it is in his parents' comfortable Midwestern suburb or at his mother's family's country estate at Lake Margaret, passed down through several generations. But even at 15, Walter knows he is never going to fit in, nor is he likely to realize his dream of becoming a ballet dancer. Passion and drive, intention and ambition, hope and hard work are not enough. There are some truths like death, lack of innate talent, and homosexuality that resist all attempts at manipulation, and Walter confronts several of them.

Neglected by his grieving parents, brokenhearted over his first love affair, humiliated, guilt-ridden, Walter leaves for New York, where he goes to college, finds a “career” working in a dollhouse store, and attempts to satisfy himself with a series of short-lived sexual relationships.

But 23 years later, Walter, now in his mid-thirties, is forced to concede it isn't working for him. “A friend had dragged him to the Y, to a seminar on taking charge and living in the moment, but the theories and techniques were suspect, Walter thought. The moment, after all, was a flash in the pan. Life, he knew, had meaning and was fully possessed only as it was remembered and reshaped.” Almost reluctantly, Walter begins to reflect and make changes.

He gets his teaching certification, and accepts a job back in the Midwest, where, he knows, his sexual orientation will have to stay hidden. He attempts to forge a relationship with his much younger sister, born after Daniel's death, who, with her tract house, car-salesman husband, and generic toddler, seems to him frighteningly conventional. He learns to teach literature to mostly uninspired adolescents, and he makes awkward stabs at finding a significant other.

Through all of this, he is bolstered by only a few reassuring constants: his friend Susan, with whom he'd studied ballet; his parents; and the house at Lake Margaret, which is in danger of being sold off. In fact, it is in dealing with that looming catastrophe that Walter starts to pull himself together, to begin making decisions about what has value and what does not.

Not a lot happens in this novel, and often what does happen seems to happen offstage. But somehow Walter's dilemma, his struggle to find a place for himself in the world, is rendered so vividly that by the last sentence, in which is expressed the smallest, most fragile tendril of hope, an entire world of possibility has been envisioned, and the hope belongs not only to Walter but also, passionately, to the reader.

Reviewed by Nan Goldberg.

Jane Hamilton writes lovely, thoughtful books about trying to take life as you find it, dealing realistically with harsh, immutable truths and surviving in spite of them. In her first novel, The Book of Ruth, the main character learns to transcend the dismal future that her abusive family history portended. In A Map of the […]

Retired FBI investigator Terry McCaleb is a man with a heart. A brand-new heart, actually.

His job chasing down serial killers for the Bureau had quickly worn out his old heart, and now Terry, recovering from transplant surgery, is determined to take it easy. But the first twist in Michael Connelly's latest thriller, Blood Work, is the discovery that Terry's life-saving new organ originally belonged to a healthy young woman named Gloria Torres who was senselessly gunned down during a grocery store robbery.

There are no leads, no clues, and despite the existence of a videotape that recorded the whole horrifying sequence of events, there are no suspects either.

It's Gloria's sister, Graciela, who approaches Terry with this information, and requests that he look into Gloria's murder. This type of crime isn't really his area of expertise, Terry explains to Graciela. Before his damaged heart forced him to quit the Bureau, Terry specialized in serial murders, which was a whole different ball game from the random killings associated with small-time robberies. Furthermore, Terry knows perfectly well that crime-solving, particularly in this case, will involve both physical and mental stress that could cause his new heart to malfunction. And Terry's surgeon, when she hears of his plan, warns him she will immediately drop his case if he goes ahead with it. Nevertheless, Terry decides to find Gloria's killer, or (literally) die in the attempt.

This is the framework around which Connelly (Trunk Music, The Poet) builds his lively and engrossing plot. Of course, nothing turns out as expected: The random killing begins to look less random; the police block Terry's efforts at every turn and eventually close in on the wrong suspect; and Terry begins to fall in love with Graciela. The only predictable development is that, despite a post-op regimen that involves piles of pills and frequent temperature-taking, Terry begins to experience serious setbacks in his recovery.

Although Terry is a new protagonist for Connelly, there are important references in Blood Work to the villains of Connelly's previous novels. This doesn't mean you need to read the other books first: Connelly does a good job of filling in the necessary background information.

If Blood Work has a flaw, it's that some of its mysteries are less than mystifying; this reader had one of the key clues nailed down a couple hundred pages before Terry figured it out. Still, the end is a shocker, and the story hangs together flawlessly.

Terry is an appealing character clever, gutsy, and very human. And despite his medical condition, I suspect he could be persuaded to take on more cases in the future. At least I hope so.

Retired FBI investigator Terry McCaleb is a man with a heart. A brand-new heart, actually. His job chasing down serial killers for the Bureau had quickly worn out his old heart, and now Terry, recovering from transplant surgery, is determined to take it easy. But the first twist in Michael Connelly's latest thriller, Blood Work, […]

Normally, when I read a book I either like it or I don't like it. I don't usually feel like inviting its author over for a pajama party. But this one had that effect on me. I'd never read anything by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith before, I'm sorry to say, but I think I've got a crush on her.

An American Killing is a murder mystery/thriller, narrated by a true-crime writer clearly based on the real-life crime writer Ann Rule (who, I bet, never figured she'd turn up as the protagonist of a novel). Rule, like the heroine of An American Killing, was a journalist whose longtime office buddy was arrested for a mass murder. In Rule's case the friend and murder suspect was Ted Bundy; in the novel his name is different, but the details of the murders are pretty much the same. The arrest changed Rule's life: at first convinced that a tragic error had been made, she decided to look into the case, and was deeply shaken to discover there'd been no mistake. She became fascinated by the idea that there are people who are evil inside, but who look and act just like you and me. She wrote a book about the Bundy case kind of a true-crime version of Hannah Arrendt's book The Banality of Evil about the trial of Adolph Eichman. Rule's book was a bestseller and led to a series of true-crime books that explored the same ground one about a mother who shoots her own children; another about a poisoner. Denise Burke's career, in An American Killing, has been identical, up until now. This case is different: this one investigates a triple murder for which an innocent man is framed. In addition to her professional life, Denise is also married to a key member of the Clinton administration. (Hillary Clinton calls her occasionally to ask stuff like, what do regular mothers wear to school on Parents' Day?) She's got a complicated history, two teenage kids, a dog, a large house with a dining room in dire need of redecorating, and a summer place in Rhode Island. She manages this female I-can-have-everything-and-do-it-brilliantly prototype with humor, a heartwarming lack of efficiency, and exactly the right amount of cynicism. At one point it's got to be either the dining room or the affair with the Rhode Island congressman, and she chooses the congressman probably, in retrospect, a bad choice. Still, that choice sets in motion the series of events that frame this book.

Plot aside (and I don't mean to downplay it the plot is good), there is a sensibility at work here that is clear-eyed, contemporary, and incredibly charismatic. Tirone Smith has written four other novels. Prepare, as I will, to hunt them up and read them. And, Mary-Ann, if you're ever in New Jersey, definitely call.

Nan Goldberg is a freelance writer in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Normally, when I read a book I either like it or I don't like it. I don't usually feel like inviting its author over for a pajama party. But this one had that effect on me. I'd never read anything by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith before, I'm sorry to say, but I think I've got a […]

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