Rebecca’s Tale

By Sally Beauman
Reviewed by Annette Gallagher Weisman
November 12, 2001

You don’t need to have read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or even to have seen Hitchcock’s classic film to follow this sequel. All you need is patience. Told in exhaustive detail by four characters, including Rebecca de Winter (checking in from the great beyond), Rebecca’s Tale takes us back to Manderley, the spooky estate where Maxim de Winter is obsessed with his dead wife. Was Rebecca’s death a suicide? Murder? Or is she really still alive? New characters are insipid compared with the original’s sinister Mrs. Danvers and the arctic Maxim, and Beauman can’t match du Maurier’s lyricism. Diehard romantics may enjoy this meandering saga, but Rebecca purists will be as unamused as Mrs. Danvers. (Morrow, $25)

Bottom Line: Dud on arrival

Family History

By Dani Shapiro
Reviewed by Annette Gallagher Weisman
May 2003

Any mother knows that you can do everything right to raise your family, and things may still turn out wrong. In Shapiro’s new novel, Rachel, a former art restorer, watches her family crumble: Her teenage daughter Kate, “captain of everything at school,” spirals out of control; her toddler Josh may have brain damage as the result of an apparent accident, and her husband, Ned, an artist and schoolteacher, is accused of sexual misconduct.

Shapiro’s writing shines in describing a distraught Rachel as she clings to the scraps of her family’s former life. Imbued with the same realism that made Shapiro’s memoir Slow Motion so gripping, Family History reads like a true story. Careful attention to detail and vivid flashbacks reveal only how—not why—events happened, until the final pages. Sometimes the choppiness of the time scheme can cause vertigo, but the overall effect is to create a web that lures readers in, curious to find out who is guilty of what and whether the ending will be happy. (Knopf, $23)

BOTTOM LINE: Powerfully hits home

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift

By Elinor Lipman
Reviewed by Annette Gallagher Weisman
August 4, 2003

Lipman is a diva of dialogue; her repartee flashes like Zorro’s sword. It’s voiced through the narrator, a socially inept surgical intern named Alice Thrift. When it comes to fashion, she couldn’t tell a Missoni from a calzone. Emotionally she is a blank: “I wish,” says her mom, “there was an electronic readout of your thoughts like the headlines in Times Square.” Alice attracts a fudge salesman named Ray who wants to marry her, but he may have ulterior motives.

There are serious issues, such as the sleep deprivation facing young docs, but the book’s delights are in watching Alice’s stumble into romance. Ray suggests she catch some TV to learn how “normal conversation flows back and forth.” And after a kiss,
he asks Alice “why I looked as if I were trying to solve a math problem.” (Random House, $23.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Hot Pursuit

A Thousand Country Roads

By Robert James Waller
Reviewed by Annette Gallagher Weisman
May 2002

Longing, loneliness and loss are the stuff great love stories are made of, like the affair between photographer Robert Kincaid and Iowa farm wife Francesca Johnson. At the end of 1992′s 12 million-selling novel The Bridges of Madison County, the two parted, apparently forever. In this 181-page “epilogue,” Kincaid—he of the gray hair and orange suspenders—returns to Roseman Bridge 16 years later at age 68 to relive those four passionate days. Will he unburn his bridges with Francesca?

Disappointingly, much of the focus here is on Kincaid’s 35-year-old son, who yearns for his absent father. Waller’s prose is less upholstered now, but flashbacks and a pat ending are dim reminders that the first book had the power of a once-in-a-lifetime meeting of souls. (John M. Hardy Publishing, $19.95)

BOTTOM LINE: An irrelevant sequel

Wives & Lovers

By Richard Bausch
Reviewed by Annette Gallagher Weisman
August, 2004

Haunting and beautifully crafted, these three short novellas about troubled relationships showcase Bausch’s skill at eliciting readers’ compassion even as he cuts to the heart of his characters’ worst foibles. In “Requisite Kindness,” a mother’s death prompts her son to examine his own mistreatment of women. The widower at the center of “Rare & Endangered Species” puzzles over his wife’s suicide while recalling “how it can feel like starvation to be intimate with someone you can’t really reach.” And “Spirits,” about lies and temptations in academia, leaves you wanting more. There is no higher compliment. Four stars.

The Book of Illusions

By Paul Auster
Reviewed by Annette Gallagher Weisman
October, 2002

Deeply distraught over the recent deaths of his wife and two children in a plane crash, Prof. David Zimmer turns on the TV one night and laughs at a movie clip starring silent screen actor Hector Mann, who disappeared in 1929. Writing a book on Mann’s films lifts Zimmer’s spirits, but after it is published the academic is shocked to receive a letter saying Mann is alive, has read the book and wants to meet Zimmer. Their relationship develops into a labyrinthine tale. Auster, author of the 1999 bestseller Timbuktu, is a maze master with an exceptional eye. Of Mann’s mustache, he observes, “Even though it speaks a language without words, its wriggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message tapped out in Morse code.


So Many Books, So Little Time

by Sara Nelson
Reviewed by Annette Gallagher Weisman
November, 2003

Readaholics, meet your new best friend. Finishing 52 books in a year — everything from Charlotte’s Web to Anna Karenina — Nelson reports back frankly. (Of The Satanic Verses, she writes: “I wasn’t in sympathy with the Ayatollah; I just didn’t get it.”) The books echo in her own life in surprising ways: After a row with her husband, she took solace in the grim world of James Frey’s memoir of drug addiction A Million Little Pieces. her passion for the page shines throughout.

Seeking Rapture

by Kathryn Harrison
Reviewed by Annette Gallagher Weisman

Novelist Kathryn Harrison’s previous memoir, The Kiss, was a mesmerizing account of her sexual affair at age 20 with her father, whom she had seen only twice growing up. This follow-up is a series of personal reflections, many of which focus on the lonely interior landscape of a child brought up by her grandparents while her glamorous, selfish mother retreated to the periphery. This time Harrison’s father is barely mentioned.

The reader may sympathize with Harrison’s eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors, but the collective dysfunction portrayed in these chapters weighs down the book. Harrison does well when she turns her attention outward, such as in “Renewal,” a funny account of how she helped her grandmother cheat her way to success on her driving test, and “What Remains,” a fascinating essay about artifacts of the dead, from relics of the saints to Kurt Cobain’s bloody guitar. (Random House, $22.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Downbeat but worthwhile.