The cream has risen to the top for Sue Monk Kidd. While her previous books, “The Secret Life of Bees,” and “The Mermaid Chair,” were popular women’s fiction, Kidd has outdone herself with “The Invention of Wings,” an Oprah Book Club Pick.
The honor will zing “Wings” to the top of the bestseller list, but this book would be successful without Oprah’s seal of approval. What sets the slavery novel apart is that it’s largely based on the life stories of Sarah and Angelina Grimké sisters from Charleston in the early 1800s, abolitionists who fought for racial equality. In the process they risked alienation from their family and their Southern, patriarchal, aristocratic society.
Kidd seems passionately invested in the Grimkés accomplishments, not only in their efforts to change the world for African-Americans, but in their quest for women’s rights. Herself a Charleston resident, Kidd shines as she weaves her narrative, which begins with Sarah as a child, daughter of a plantation owner, jurist and slave owner, and his wife, a cruel woman who thinks nothing of beating her slaves, and having them whipped and tortured.
“Wings” is told in alternating chapters by Sarah and Handful, also known as Hettie, a fictional slave character. In truth, Sarah was given a slave when she was just a child, and historical documents state that theirs was a close relationship — but those were the only details Kidd could uncover in her research.
Using this kernel of history, Kidd hones in on the girls’ developing relationship, one that follows them into adulthood. Using the vehicle of their friendship is a brilliant move on Kidd’s part and has produced a novel that drives home the horrors of slavery in a heartbreakingly personal manner.
“Wings” is not an easy read — but it’s an eye-opener and a pageturner you’ll finish with great wonder at Kidd’s progression as a writer, and admiration for the Grimké sisters. Couple it with a trip to the movies to see “To Be a Slave,” and an even more complete picture of this dark and shameful time in our nation’s history will be further driven home.
Reviewed by Karen Cernich, Missourian Features Editor.
Don’t let the size of this one scare you. It’s 771 pages, but the story is so engrossing and the characters so vivid that, as eager as I was to finish the story to find out how it ends, I also was a little sad to close the cover and leave everyone behind.
“The Goldfinch” is Donna Tartt’s third novel and, for me, her best yet. The story opens with Theo Decker, a 20-something New Yorker holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam. We aren’t told why he’s there, but it’s clear that he’s either hiding or in some sort of trouble. While there, Theo dreams of his mother, who was killed in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art when Theo was 13.
He was with her that day. They were on their way to meet with his school principal because he had been suspended, but they duck into the Met to get out of the rain and also so Theo’s mom, who studied art history in college, can catch an exhibit of the Dutch masters. She’s eager to see one painting in particular, “The Goldfinch,” which had survived a gunpowder factory explosion in the 1600s that killed the artist, Carel Fabritius, and destroyed almost all of his other paintings.
Theo survives the explosion at the The Met and so does “The Goldfinch.” He becomes obsessed with the painting, as well as with a girl he saw at the exhibit just before the explosion.
The story follows Theo, who had been abandoned by his alcoholic father about a year earlier, as he goes to live first with the family of a wealthy friend, then with his father when he suddenly reappears and finally with an antiques restorer, Hobie, who was a business partner of a man killed in the Met explosion. As an adult, Theo goes into business with Hobie, but finds himself engaging in questionable transactions that threaten to bring down not just himself, but Hobie too.
Throughout it all, Theo keeps a secret from everyone about the explosion and his survival, a secret that brings the story full circle, back to that hotel in Amsterdam.
There are so many layers to this story that it requires a close read to catch it all and may send you back to the beginning to reread it all over again.
Joyce Carol Oates never ceases to blow my mind. In her mid-70s Oates continues to turn out a book a year — meaty, thoroughly researched, deep novels and collections of equally dark short stories.
Recently I told a good friend about Oates’ new book “Carthage,” which was just released, urging her to read it, despite its hard-hitting, depressing subject matter. “Her books are so disturbing, but they just suck you in,” she said. I couldn’t agree more.
My favorite Oates’ novel is “The Falls” (2004), and “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” (2007) ranked right up there too — but in recent years, I haven’t been able to stomach Oates’ macabre bend. Novels like “Mudwoman” (2012) and her book of novellas, “Evil Eye” (2013), left me quaking.
Happily I report finishing “Carthage” and not wanting to hole up in the house with sunlamps to lift my mood. Early on, Oates’ gut-punching, descriptive voice is hard to take, but I was hooked. Oates refuses to let go, entrancing readers like a snake charmer — what a storyteller.
This time the action revolves around Brett, a solider suffering from post traumatic stress, and badly wounded in Iraq in 2005; he is scarred, body and soul. Brett left Carthage, his hometown, engaged to “beautiful Juliet Mayfield,” daughter of Zeno and Arlette.
The Mayfields have a younger daughter too, the “smart” one, an odd girl who refers to herself as a freak. “Cressida is a good person in her heart! But this is not always evident. It’s hurtful for her to observe happiness in others. Even people she loves.”
When Cressida suddenly goes missing in the remote Adirondacks, and was last seen in Brett’s company, a search gets under way. As it ensues, Cressida’s parents tell their stories, as does Juliet, and finally Brett, before the book jumps years ahead, revealing what happened to the characters.
Enough said. I don’t want to give the book away. Horrific and hard-hitting — yes, that’s “Carthage,” and a bit overlong. But it’s milk toast compared to Oates’ recent offerings. I’m happy she’s written something I can sink my teeth into instead of scaring the living daylights out of me.