Laura Marsh is the literary editor of the New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @LauraMarsh
Julia May Jonas
PositiveThe NationOne of the few disappointments of the novel is that it doesn’t follow this mix of attraction and disgust, defiance and shame, as far as it could. Jonas has a dramatist’s feel for conflict, stacking the first half of the novel with a series of tightly wound confrontations ... we never get into John’s Title IX hearing, and we never get to see the spark between the professor and Vladimir take on a life of its own. Instead, the plot takes a melodramatic turn away from the campus into a series of somewhat improbable (and highly spoilable) events ... The novel makes a rare attempt to take such a woman at her word and map out the contours of her inner life. There is room in Vladimir for her to be a frustrated artist, a faltering lover, and a woman making sense of the shadow that has engulfed her marriage. She can be sparkling and astute, obtuse and pitiless. She might be at her most brilliant when she is staking out her shakiest positions. But who said she had to be right?
John Le Carré
PanThe New York Review of BooksThe closest the book comes to vintage le Carré is when Proctor drops in on a pair of old spies, a married couple named Philip and Joan, in a replay of Smiley’s visit to Connie Sachs ... Philip and Joan don’t just make the logic of the plot more explicit; they also articulate the underlying attitudes of many of le Carré’s books more clearly than his characters generally do ... It all concludes a little too neatly, the characters each a little too eager to drop the pretense of intrigue. The mood of Silverview is brisk and knowing compared with the melancholic, regretful tone of many of the Smiley books. The pace never really lets up. Everyone speaks and thinks in the same short, irritated sentences ... It isn’t really le Carré’s fault if Silverview is a less enigmatic novel than we might expect. For one thing, le Carré, who died in 2020 at the age of eighty-nine, never decided to publish the book ... Given the state of Britain, too, in recent years, it makes sense that the goings-on in Silverview have a brittle quality. Everything Smiley and his author disliked had become the dominant culture.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksThe most fun writing in the book concerns the [church] group’s ideas, its social tensions, and its kumbaya stylings ... The soap opera–like plot of the novel feels almost too gripping—a device to propel us along in a single, weighty inquiry: What makes people want to be good? ... As the characters dare themselves to open up, Franzen seems to be doing something similar as a novelist, resisting the temptation to smirk at their good intentions. If his earlier books were steeped in ironic social observation, Crossroads is an experiment in sincerity ... But, for the first volume in a three-part survey of American culture, its vision is surprisingly narrow, largely limited to the social dynamics in a single church in a single suburb. Can the inner life of New Prospect tell us much about the inner life of the whole country? ... What makes [one] section of the novel more than Franzen’s own \'little Navajo experience\'? He stages several of the novel’s most climactic episodes against the backdrop of Diné culture but brings Diné characters into the story only to tell us something about the white visitors ... he describes [sex] in some very mangled ways, full of squeamish syntax and punctilious terminology ... He makes sex an oddly self-serving, even solipsistic act ... Bodies are unruly, but it seems unfair that Marion’s story is wholly bound up with her weight ... It’s as a historical novel, however, that Crossroads feels most superficial ... For all its sagas and morality plays, the past is a refuge—a time when nothing mattered so much as the style of the coolest, most enviable kids.
PanThe New RepublicIn Bailey’s telling, Roth’s life is a story of a great talent, threatened by other people’s desires and demands ... Yet all of this talent and promise, Bailey suggests, was about to be jeopardized by the appearance of a uniquely destructive woman ... A major point in the case against Martinson is that the \'deepening turbulence\' of their relationship, her \'years of constant nagging and irritation,\' made it difficult for Roth to write. The account of their relationship reads like a litany of small and not so small acts of career sabotage ... Eventually Roth would have Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man carry out the same deception that Margaret Martinson had in real life, but his desire for a resounding guilty verdict didn’t fade. Bailey seems determined to deliver that verdict for him. Much that Bailey writes about Martinson is difficult to stomach ... Women in this book are forever screeching, berating, flying into a rage, and storming off, as if their emotions exist solely for the purpose of sapping a man’s creative energies ... From book to book, Bailey expresses Roth’s disappointment at uncomprehending reviewers and prize juries—where’s that National Book Award? And how about that Pulitzer? In his personal life, which Bailey documents fling by fling, Roth now often turns to sensible, accommodating women ... Then again, Roth does not come out of this biography looking so great, either, despite getting the chance to tell his side of the story. His final years see a sad procession of young girlfriends floating in and out of his life, as he tries to convert some of them into long-term carers ... Possibly the worst thing you could do for Roth’s reputation would be to defend him on his own terms. His emphasis on settling scores with ex-wives and lovers draws attention to his signal failures of imagination—his lack of interest in the inner lives of women, his limited ability to reconcile his own experiences of pain with the co-existence of others’ suffering ... The parts of Bailey’s book that trace the unraveling of Ross Miller’s Roth biography are among its most revealing.
PanThe New RepublicPerhaps the strangest aspect of Rodham is that in crafting an exemplary version of Hillary Clinton, the book—apparently unwittingly—presents a harsh critique of the person we know today ... there is a lot of self-consciously steamy sex ... Much of the well-known biography of both figures features heavily here, upcycled into a painful kind of exposition ... For all the cringe-inducing detail, the point here is to capture how much Hillary is sacrificing when she separates from Bill ... the moral certainty of the fictional Hillary Rodham makes an awkward contrast with real Hillary Clinton’s position on similar stories, which remains at best unclear. That dissonance is hard to ignore through the rest of the novel ... This character has none of the determined pragmatism, none of the insistence on courage in the face of intractable problems, of the Hillary Clinton who titled her 2014 memoir Hard Choices ... Senator Rodham turns out to be a surreal composite of women in politics ... There’s a lot here that doesn’t make sense ... [Bernie] Sanders’s absence reveals a larger weakness of Rodham, which is its curiously limited view of what is at stake in American politics today. Not only is there no rising democratic social movement on the margins of this novel, it’s as if the 2008 crisis and Great Recession never happened ... We learn more about old flames than ideology or strategy. Some of those intimate moments are handled with an unexpected subtlety, capturing the ways that competence and responsibility can leave powerful women isolated. It’s ultimately a lonely story. To imagine a different future for the country requires more than imagining a single person’s life had gone differently.
MixedThe New RepublicGornick’s new memoir...is about constructing a life that doesn’t serve love, whether through hope or regret, indulgence or renunciation. There still aren’t many models for this ... The Odd Woman And The City is Gornick’s most ambitious attempt yet at the nonromance plot ... In its angular form, Gornick’s memoir resembles the 1970s fiction of Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick ... Like them, Gornick hunts for broken resolutions, broken plots, and neuroses ... Among the substitutes for love that Gornick proposes in this book, the city is almost as potent as friendship. She styles herself as a flaneur, one of the masses seeking moments of recognition in the crowd ... If some of this sounds lonely, it is. Gornick’s memoir is a coming to terms with her outsider status—a richly felt and, to some extent, inspiriting one. But it doesn’t describe the integration of the single woman into society and, because of this, it’s a limited and individual response to a much broader problem ... Feminine solidarity, one powerful antidote to the siren calls of traditional romance, does not feature in this memoir. Gornick no longer writes of the exhilaration she felt for many years \'in the loose embrace of feminism.\' ... Negotiating...modes of living has been the central tension in Gornick’s work, and it forms the other half of this latest attempt to live on her own terms. That’s something worth not giving up on.
PositiveThe New YorkerThe work of caring for others is at the center of Tisdale’s writing, and it proves an endlessly complex and engaging subject; so much emotional labor, these essays remind us, is still hardly understood as work at all...The essays in Violation are mostly unaltered from their first publication. But each piece is followed by a short, sad-looking note in italics, explaining what Tisdale was thinking when she wrote it or what she wanted it to mean, as though to mark it as merely her tentative, inevitably imperfect version of events. Even the book’s title seems to imply that, collectively, these essays amount to an ethical breach, an uncalled-for advance onto other people’s territory. All of this runs counter to the writing itself, at once tender and assured.
PositiveThe New RepublicThe careful gathering of scientific and historical studies in Wilson’s book is meant to do more than convince us change is possible. While First Bite does not introduce itself as a self-help guide, its pages contain a generous portion of no-pressure advice, doled out in a sensible but soothing manner.