Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning

This gorgeously evocative novel of the early-1900s American West takes on issues of race, class, labor and women’s rights via a remarkable young woman’s coming of age.

“Strikes are all the same. Same songs. Same reasons. Same hope and rage. In those years it was struggle and strife all over the mountains, in the cities and on the plains of the country, wherever there was industry or toil.” Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning (Whitegirl; My Notorious Life) is an expansive novel of passions: love, beauty, suffering; struggles for labor rights, women’s equality and the rights of formerly enslaved people. Set in the early-1900s Colorado mountains, this enthralling story stars Sylvie Pelletier, who travels west at age 17 to find the world broader, more lovely and more terrible than she’d imagined. Gilded Mountain tracks her coming of age and the troubles of her family and the marble miners of Moonstone.

Sylvie’s father, Jacques, is beloved by his family and his coworkers in the marble quarry, who call him “Frenchy,” but Sylvie’s mother fears he will again meet danger with his union organizing. Sylvie graduates from high school and apprentices as “printer’s devil” to the freethinking K.T. Redmond, who further shocks townspeople by being a newspaperwoman. As conditions in the mines deteriorate and K.T. nurtures Sylvie’s rebellious streak, the young protagonist is also invited into the household of Company owner Duke Padgett and his wife, the Countess. Their royal titles are self-assigned, but their wealth is real. The Duke’s son, Jace, becomes something of a romantic interest, but there is also United Mine Workers’ representative George Lonahan. Sylvie is torn between her principles and love for her family, her class and her boss, and the temptations of the other life. “I forgot to observe with the sharp eyes of a printer’s devil because my sight was dulled by sugar and awe,” she realizes. “My loyalties gnarled and snared me.”

Gilded Mountain is an ambitious novel, swelling to encompass labor rights (complete with Pinkerton Detective Agency goons), women’s rights, the societal role of the free press, the rights of Black Americans immediately following the Civil War, lynching, immigration and more. Starring real characters from history (union organizer Mother Jones, Belgium’s King Leopold II), it contains romance, historical fiction and inspired, high-minded thinking on important issues. Moonstone, Colo., is a fictionalized composite town, but its marble mining and the standard operating procedures of the Company are well based in historical fact. It also contains lovely writing about the natural world: “[T]he Diamond River overflowed its banks and rushed downhill, rooks sang in the trees, and leaves unfurled like new little salads on the ends of their branches. A corduroy of greens softened the hard folds of the mountains, and the meadows bloomed with swaths of blue columbine and dashes of yellow sneezeweed.” The result is a painfully beautiful novel of big ideals, heartbreaks and tragedies, sewn together by an admirable and unforgettable heroine.


This review originally ran in the September 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 maraschino cherries.

Utopia by Heidi Sopinka

Art, gender, love and friendship are all under consideration in this novel of twisted relationships in the 1970s L.A. art scene.

Heidi Sopinka’s Utopia opens at a party with the first-person perspective of Romy, a performance artist, directly addressing her months-old daughter. The evening ends with an unexplained tragedy, and from there the novel jumps forward some months to follow a young woman named Paz, who is now raising Romy’s baby and is married to Romy’s husband, Billy. It is 1978, and Paz, Billy and all their friends are steeped in the Los Angeles art scene, where sex, drugs and free expression are soured by competition, infighting and wildly different rules for male and female artists. Paz attends women’s groups and wishes for a freer life for herself, but many women see her as having taken over Romy’s life in decidedly unfeminist fashion. Romy, the more successful and established artist, casts a long shadow; Paz loves Billy but is perhaps more in love with Romy, whose life and art obsess her. Caring for Romy’s baby, lost in reading Romy’s journals, Paz finds herself in something of a love triangle with a ghost, and begins to lose grasp of her own life and art. And then a postcard arrives, apparently from Romy. It is labeled “disappearance piece.”

Utopia cleverly investigates layers of social issues: feminism and its intersections with race and class; gender roles in life and in art; women’s relationships; the artist’s relationship to commerce and social justice. The central narrative belongs to Paz, but that narrative is always shadowed by Romy, and intermingled with Romy’s voice via her journal entries. “Everything Romy said assumed importance. She lived her life so strongly.” The two women and all they have in common (including an art-star husband and a baby) offer plenty of room to examine questions about art and gender. Paz’s best friend Essa (also an artist and mother) is another powerful character and model for Paz to chart her own path. They are surrounded by other women of the art scene and feminist groups; the novel is populated by strong women questioning norms.

Sopinka (The Dictionary of Animal Languages) excels in characterization and the evocation of the power of creation. In pursuing her predecessor’s mysterious end, Paz must put herself in real danger and explore the very edges of not only art but existence. “She’s driving a speed addict’s car in an inside-out shirt, on painkillers, with a hand wrapped in gauze, on her way to find her husband’s dead ex-wife. If she concentrates hard enough, these things will snap into a logical pattern.” By the time the perspective shifts to that of a third woman near the novel’s conclusion, Utopia has asked that the reader journey through some weighty questions–but all will be rewarded.


This review originally ran in the August 16, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 matches.

Imago by Octavia Butler

Following Dawn and Adulthood Rites is Imago, the final book in this trilogy, which I am sorry to see the end of. We’ve shifted narrators again: Lilith brought us through book one, then Akin for book two, and now we meet Jodahs, another first of its kind. Like Akin, Jodahs is a child of Lilith’s family, and her own (human-born). When Jodahs reaches metamorphosis, when Oankali and constructs (Oankali/human offspring) reach sexual maturity, a surprise: instead of becoming male as was expected, Jodahs begins to become ooloi, the Oankali third gender that is neither male nor female. Ooloi have extensive abilities to heal and changes themselves and others, and it had been thought still too risky to introduce human-born ooloi at this stage of the two species’ trade. Jodahs is a mistake, and a potentially dangerous one. But it quickly becomes clear that in its uniqueness it may have some special abilities to offer as well.

Imago is told from Jodahs’ point of view, as it struggles with its own needs and the challenges of coming of age. One early solution that is offered to the problem of Jodahs’ very existence is that it be exiled to a ship away from Earth; but Jodahs is a native of Earth, and quite reasonably pushes back against this idea. It’s the first of its kind, not wanted where it is from, and threatened with being sent “back” to a place it is not from. (The parallels to slavery are unmistakable.) It has overwhelmingly strong urges, toward sexual and other connections, but its people don’t want to allow it to pursue these urges, which are natural but also unprecedented (because Jodahs is unprecedented). I am still marveling at Butler’s worldbuilding here, that I’m so absorbed and bought into the rules of her invented peoples. It’s lovely.

There is commentary on human nature: the old human contradiction, as Oankali see it, of intelligence with hierarchical behaviors. Humans among themselves struggle with racism, xenophobia, sexism and sexual assault, and homophobia. When faced with Oankali – that is, something different, non-human – humans frequently react with fear and hostility. Even when they feel drawn to an ooloi, for example (and the ooloi have this power, to make themselves irresistible), they can feel revulsion mixed in. The trilogy has much to say about xenophobia and race, colonialism, agency and freedom of choice, and also gender. I love that the ooloi have to repeat that they are not male and female, not both, but a whole other thing. They still get misgendered and mis-pronouned. Jodah is asked if it wants to be male: “Had I ever wanted to be male? I had just assumed I was male, and would have no choice in the matter.” It’s also about community-building in ways that I love. Building communities, families and societies is just as hard in Butler’s fictional world as it is in any other dystopia I’ve encountered, real or fictional (because people). This is all good commentary on human tendencies, while at the same time being very fine, escapist fiction.

For more, especially some excellent thoughts on the book’s title, check out Erika Nelson’s “Playing Human” essay at Tor.com.

I love this series and think everyone should read it.


Rating: 8 tubers.

A Mirror Mended by Alix E. Harrow

My *only* complaint about these gems is their brevity. I could sink into Harrow’s retold fairy tales for much longer than ~120 pages. Can’t wait for the next installment.

Following the action of A Spindle Splintered, Zinnia Gray’s exciting life traveling through the fairy tale multiverse, saving princesses and sending them off into their happily-ever-afters is getting a little tiresome. “I’ve rescued princesses from space colonies and castles and caves; I’ve burned spindles and blessed babies; I’ve gotten drunk with at least twenty good fairies and made out with every member of the royal family. I’ve seen my story in the past and the future and the never-was-or-will-be; I’ve seen it gender-flipped, modern, comedic, childish, whimsical, tragic, terrifying, as allegory and fable; I’ve seen it played out with talking woodland creatures, in rhyming meter, and more than once, God help me, with choreography.” Zinnia’s story, as we know from book one, is Sleeping Beauty. But things are about to get weird again.

Looking in the mirror (hung over after another happy wedding), our heroine is surprised to see a very different face: not her own, and not that of a princess. This one is a haughty, threatening queen, holding a mirror in her hand, demanding a way out of her own story. Zinnia recognizes that she is the villain – but not of Sleeping Beauty’s story. She has somehow jumped not just from one world into another, but into another fairy tale entirely. And this time she doesn’t have her awesome best friend Charm to help her out, because of a mysterious estrangement that the reader doesn’t puzzle out til near the end of the book.

A Mirror Mended is again a delight, an irreverent, queer, cynical-but-sweet reimagining of Snow White that questions narrative truths about protagonists, villains, agency, resonance and cohesion. Zinnia knows there must be a back way into a castle because it’s a known plot device. She expects a certain evil queen to be ugly, “which is pretty fucked up of me, but in my defense, Western folklore persistently and falsely equates a character’s physical appearance with their inner morality.” [In case you forgot, Zinnia has a degree in folklore.] When yet another stranger doesn’t meet expectations, Zinnia assumes, because “I know a protagonist when I see one.” But as the walls between fairy tales thin, Zinnia will learn to question her assumptions.

I love the rethinking of gender expectations and of narrative tropes, and the examination of agency, the power we all might have to rewrite our own stories. It’s empowering and awesome and feel-good without ever being saccharine, although it can be awfully, wonderfully sweet. Zinnia learns some important lessons in this story, finds a little romance for herself this time around, and leaves us with the perfect setup for book three in the Fractured Fables series. I can’t wait, and I hope it goes well past a trilogy. Highly recommend.


Rating: 8 bodice laces.

Maximum Shelf: Ithaca by Claire North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2022.


Claire North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; The Pursuit of William Abbey) offers a new take on a familiar tale with Ithaca, a richly imagined, thought-provoking novel of Penelope’s trials during the Trojan War and its aftermath. The forgotten or misrepresented women and goddesses of ancient Greece bring joy, sorrow, humor and wit.

A lengthy space of time falls between The Iliad‘s story of the Trojan War’s conclusion and The Odyssey‘s story of Odysseus’s protracted homecoming. On the island of Ithaca while its king, Odysseus, is absent, Penelope, his queen, rules uncertainly, beset by unruly suitors wishing to become king, and the hopes and ambitions of her son, Telemachus, an infant when his father went to war and a young adult by the time he returns. Into this gap comes Ithaca, which follows the challenges faced by Penelope and the other women–queens, wives, mothers, goddesses, slaves–who surround her and fight their own often overlooked battles.

The Homeric myths are well-known and familiar territories for many readers and indeed many writers, who have reimagined and retold these stories in abundance. But despite the richness of such retellings, Penelope remains an enigma, and North’s contribution to the genre is unique and welcome. While the Ithacan queen is in some respects its protagonist, Ithaca is narrated by the goddess Hera, wife (and sister) to Zeus, and frequently represented as bitter, jealous and vengeful. Hera’s interest in Penelope is self-serving: as the goddess of women, wives, queens and motherhood, she resents the ways in which Penelope is disregarded by her male counselors, her absent husband, her suitors and her son. While Hera’s stepdaughter, Athena, is chiefly concerned with the hero Odysseus, Hera is entirely here for the women. In fact, it is not Penelope whose fate concerns her first: “No one ever said the gods did not have favourites, and it is Clytemnestra I love best, my queen above all, the one who would be free.”

Clytemnestra’s crime of husband-murder is reframed by the recounted sins of Agamemnon, and when the murderess-queen hides on Ithaca, readers are reminded that she and Penelope are cousins. Next arrive Orestes and Elektra, who seek to avenge their father’s death; Orestes is near-mute and disengaged, while his sister is a magnetic, powerful force, barely remembering that she must at least seem to defer to the will of a man: “aware that she has been perhaps a little too forceful… [she] adds, ‘My brother will issue his commands shortly.’ ” Clever Penelope is more practiced at the trick of subtly sliding her wise points into conversations while seeming to demur. Telemachus is a bit silly, a boy hoping to be a man. Odysseus is entirely off-screen, “groan[ing] in the nymph’s pearly bed.” Both Artemis and Athena make appearances, annoying their stepmother with their own agendas.

Penelope is of course harassed by the unwelcome suitors who place the queen in a sort of stalemate, as she can neither accept their offers of marriage (both because Odysseus may still be living, and because to accept one would be to provoke the others quite possibly to war) nor send them away (because of the culturally sacred host’s obligation). In this version, Penelope is additionally beset by pirates attacking her island nation–pirates dressed as Illyrians but wielding the short swords of Greeks. There seems to be intrigue afoot, offering a whodunit mystery subplot for Penelope and her subtle female counselors (in contrast to her blustering male ones) to investigate. Women warriors lurk in the shadows of this Ithaca. And North does not forget the maids, who are also slaves, and also in some cases Trojans: “Death to all the Greeks,” one of them repeatedly mutters under her breath. The maids are frequently bedmates of the suitors; but to what end, and with what choice in the matter?

Thus is Ithaca the story not only of Penelope, Hera and other queens and goddesses, but of less famed women as well, down to the teenaged village huntress who opens these pages. Hera is quick to remind her audience that the stories that get passed down are written by poets, whose narratives may be purchased, and who rarely notice the contributions of women: “That girl is not remembered now”; “No poet will ever do her homage.” “Freedom only increased the efficacy of her work, though there is not a single poet in all of Greece who would dare breathe of such an outcome.” Hera’s voice is humorous, whimsical, imperious, frequently scornful. But she is also surprisingly easily cowed by the other Olympians, knowing that Zeus holds power over her. “I was a queen of women once, before my husband bound me with chains and made me a queen of wives.” While this story is on its face about Penelope, Clytemnestra, Elektra and the rest, Hera is an engrossing and masterful character in her narration.

North’s prose is clever, funny and as wise as Penelope herself, with an eye for pleasing images as well as deeper meanings. In her capable hands, this ancient landscape is both fresh and timely. Ithaca is the first in a trilogy, and having come to know this three-dimensional Penelope, North’s readers will eagerly await the next two installments.


Rating: 8 dreams.

Come back Monday for my interview with North.

Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler

Book two in the Lilith’s Brood series (following Dawn) is Adulthood Rites. We get a new protagonist and first-person narrator, although Lilith is still an important figure. The worldbuilding remains thorough and engrossing, and I’m still all in for book three to come.

In this novel, we are back on Earth, which the Oankali have worked to make safe for human occupation. Humans live there in two kinds of communities: either side-by-side with the Oankali or without; the latter group are known as resisters. The Oankali have engineered it so that Humans (I capitalize as Butler does) cannot reproduce without their intervention, so the resister communities are childless (although very longlived, also through Oankali intervention; this allows the narrative to work for decades, with Humans who remember life “before” but remain childless). Their inability to reproduce defines and obsesses the Human resister communities. The hybrid communities have children, known as ‘constructs,’ blends of Human and Oankali, born to both Human and Oankali mothers. The narrator is Akin, the first male construct born to a Human mother: Lilith. This first male-construct-born-to-Human is an important and risky step. The Oankali are nervous that he will carry too much of the Human Contradiction: intelligence and hierarchical thinking.

The baby-obsessed resisters are inclined to steal construct children. They are also inclined to hate them, because they don’t look Human enough. (This feels like plenty of metaphor to start with, but it goes on.) Akin is kidnapped very young by Human resisters who both crave him (baby!) and revile him (for his Oankali characteristics). This book is primarily the story of his own conflicted relationships with the two parts of himself. And, of course, we get to see Human survivors of an apocalypse do what we more or less expect them to do. They weaponize, rape, kidnap, and kill each other. It’s sobering (although I don’t find it the least bit surprising). Akin will wind up with a unique perspective on humanity, both as the first of his kind and because of his lived experience, and in the end he may hold some power over the future of humanity.

Post-apocalyptic narratives like this have become commonplace since this series (Adulthood Rites was originally published in 1988), but even in a now-crowded field, Butler stands out. The different traits of the Oankali, and their earnest failure to understand humanity’s protests against them, offer plenty to think about. To have a child who is a mix of both types is (again) ripe metaphor, and a fascinating opportunity to think about blended identities. Lilith tells Akin,

Human beings fear difference… Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need to give them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek different and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. If you don’t understand this, you will. You’ll probably find both tendencies surfacing in your own behavior… When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.

Which of course is commentary on xenophobia, but also on that sense of having opposing types in one person (which I think we can all empathize with, one way or another).

There is also plenty to consider about family and social structures. Construct children have five parents (at least until something happens to them): male and female Human and Oankali parents, respectively, and an ooloi, the genderless Oankali who makes fertility possible, who ‘mixes’ the baby. “All interconnected, all united–a network of family into which each child should fall.” And Lilith’s Brood is centrally concerned with ideas of agency, consent, free will, and personal choice. It’s an enormous amount of philosophy to take on, for a book billed as science fiction… or perhaps (as next week’s author interview will point out!) it’s a falsehood and a shame that we expect less from sci fi.

Killer reading. Butler’s a master.


Rating: 8 guns.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

I thought Kindred was good, but Dawn has blown me away. The former was an excellent and thought-provoking book but (at least at this distance of memory) not something I quite got lost in; this one offered a new level of world-building that took me away from my own life in a way I love. It’s still an outstanding work of craft, and offers plenty of serious issues (see the discussion questions at the back of my paperback edition), but it also captured my imagination and took me out of myself. Very special.

Lilith wakes up in a plain room devoid of color and objects, accompanied occasionally by disembodied voices, fed a bland stew or cereal in edible bowls, driven a little mad by isolation; and this happens over and over again. Eventually she passes enough tests to meet her captors, who turn out to be nonhuman alien “people” who inform her that she is not on Earth – Earth as we know it was destroyed in a nuclear war, which she remembers – but on a ship. And, long story short-ish, she is among the few human survivors who will eventually be sent to Earth to repopulate it. But there is a price: the alien people, the Oankali, want something in exchange for shepherding humans out of near-extinction.

Lilith is a special human. She’s been identified as having the right combination of qualities to lead and teach humans how to move forward. This role will come with its own frustrations and burdens. It is the Oankali’s belief that humans have “a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics,” which alone would have been advantages but together may doom humanity. These are intelligence and hierarchical thinking. Lilith’s troop of humans have these characteristics, of course. They are also traumatized by war, and the challenges of survivalism include some tendencies to violence, for one thing.

This is a story about the way humans behave, and about relationships, between humans and also across species with the Oankali. In some basic ways, it reduces to a story about people, which I appreciate. It also considers some more unusual questions, especially because the Oankali have some very novel qualities, skills and abilities, and ways of relating to each other. Sex and gender appear in new ways here, which is thought-provoking. Lilith is a Black woman, which has some implications for her place in a human society, because even post-nuclear-war we haven’t lost our societal issues and prejudices. Dawn deals with questions about agency and self-determination; love, sex and gender; and the persistence of old hangups. I was intrigued and engaged by the Issues, but I was most pleasurably lost in the story and the novel world and people.

Very much sold on this series – I’ve ordered books 2 and 3, and can’t wait.


Rating: 9 breadnuts.

Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do by Tracy Dawson

Humorous profiles of more than 30 women in history who broke gender barriers offer righteous inspiration.

In 2013, television writer and actor Tracy Dawson was passed over for a job writing shows because they didn’t have any “female needs.” Naturally infuriated, she became interested in women over the centuries whose opportunities and options have been limited by their sex. From this curiosity is born Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do, in which Dawson profiles several dozen women from the 1400s BCE through the present. In a pithy, one-liner-laden style, she brings these remarkable and little-known histories to light with comedic flair.

Some of the women are classics: Joan of Arc, Kathrine Switzer and a chapter’s worth of once-anonymous literary figures who are now household names (Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontës, George Sand). But the majority are more obscure: Maria Toorpakai, professional squash player born in 1990 who defied the ultra-conservative norms of her region of Pakistan when she disguised herself as a boy to play sports; Hannah Snell, who served as a Royal Marine in the 1750s; Ellen Craft, who fled slavery in 1848 disguised as a white male slaveowner. A teenaged Dorothy Lawrence, rejected as war correspondent in World War I, took herself to the front by boat, bicycle and soldier’s garb. The 1890s entertainer and male impersonator Florence Hines, 1941 comic book creator Tarpé Mills and 1980s miner and entrepreneur Pili Hussein are among these diverse, colorful stories. Others are antiheroes, like witch-pricker Christian Caddell or all-around scoundrel Catalina de Erauso. Dawson is careful to point out that her focus is on “women who dressed as men to gain access and opportunity, not on gender identity,” since the latter is notoriously difficult to parse from a historical perspective, particularly since many of the women she profiles have left scant records. Their motivations vary as widely as other aspects of their identities and stories, but each of these women pushed boundaries in ways that remain inspirational for Dawson and her readers today.

Let Me Be Frank is peppered with punchy jokes in an informal, conversational tone that suits Dawson’s background in television. Joan of Arc is compared to Beyoncé; U.K.-born Annie Hindle’s stage name is received with “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Dawson delivers these historical profiles, born of research, in a lighthearted voice. Tina Berning’s portraits evoke the women’s personalities and literally color the narratives. The result is an easy-to-read, eye-opening look at female bravery amid the sexism and misogyny throughout history; it is funny and rousing and proud.


This review originally ran in the March 25, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 clusters of tanzanite.

Maximum Shelf: Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on March 22, 2022.


Tracy Flick, the ambitious but unlucky protagonist of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel Election (and the 1999 movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon), is back and still striving in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Familiarity with Election can’t hurt, but isn’t necessary to follow this next installment. Perrotta (The Leftovers; Little Children) serves up his signature black comedy and shrewd wit in an expertly paced novel of great cleverness and charm. The title character is now 40-ish and working as assistant principal at Green Meadow High School, in a shabby-idyllic New Jersey suburb. Life hasn’t turned out as Tracy had hoped. She left law school to care for her beloved mother, whose death 10 years ago still leaves a gaping hole. Instead of being a high-powered attorney on a rocket-like political trajectory, she serves as the hardworking second-in-command at an unremarkable public school whose football team disappoints everyone in town (except Tracy, who couldn’t care less). Then Principal Jack Weede announces his pending retirement, and it might finally be Tracy’s time to shine. But of course, nothing’s ever easy.

Kyle Dorfman, one of the town’s most successful alumni (he got rich off a virtual pet app) returns with the idea of putting together a Green Meadow High School Hall of Fame. He is also the new school board president, and therefore someone Tracy needs in her corner, but it’s not clear where his loyalties really lie (aside from with Kyle). The first meeting of the Hall of Fame selection committee immediately turns sour: the obvious candidate turns out to be a former star quarterback, and Tracy’s seen this routine before.

Tracy Flick Can’t Win is timely. It opens with a review of the #metoo era and headlines filled with “one powerful man after another toppled from his pedestal, exposed as a sexual predator,” which gives Tracy unpleasant memories of high school: “It was ancient history, a brief misguided affair–that’s the wrong word, I know, but it’s the one I’ve always used–with my sophomore English teacher, a few regrettable weeks of my teenage life.” Tracy sees the world changing around her but hasn’t entirely figured out her own version of it yet.

This adult Tracy Flick is vulnerable, socially awkward, frustrated and disillusioned. “My mother had been wrong: fame wasn’t a reward for your hard work. It was a lottery, pure dumb luck, and it didn’t matter anyway, not in the long run.” She’s still ambitious but worried it may be too late for her; she’s been passed over for promotions, and not completing law school still smarts. Her romantic life becomes needlessly complicated when her supposed catch of a surgeon boyfriend turns clingy. Baking a cake for her daughter’s 11th birthday gives her a chance to reflect on their mother-daughter relationship, which disappoints her, by contrast to her very close bond with her own late mother. The maturing Tracy has taken up a meditation practice for her blood pressure, and is working to navigate the nuances and challenges of a life less sparkly and more complicated than the one she’d intended to lead.

One of Perrotta’s talents is obviously forming character. Tracy is delightfully complex; Principal Weede has secrets of his own, and a touching vulnerability as well as some less admirable qualities. Kyle is not well liked, but his attempts to compensate offer comic opportunities. The aging star quarterback nominated for the Hall of Fame, Vito Falcone, is now a recovering alcoholic working on making amends, his process by turns pitiful and hilarious. And the high school’s much-loved, longtime front desk lady, Diane, is perhaps the novel’s most rewarding surprise.

Chapters shift in perspective, mainly between Tracy Flick, Jack Weede and Kyle Dorfman, whose first-person voices are joined by those of the two students who serve on the selection committee. (It’s déjà vu for Tracy when these are an overachieving but under-recognized girl and an affable but less impressive boy who’d beaten her out for Student Council president.) Third-person chapters feature a few other characters, like Vito Falcone and Front Desk Diane. In contrast to Tracy’s justified bitterness, we get other perspectives: “The truth is, we’re all prisoners of our historical context. Anybody who says morality is absolute, that right and wrong don’t change over time, you know what? They just haven’t lived long enough.” These points of view paint Green Meadow–and Tracy–in different lights, and allow Perrotta’s comedic zings to shine. Tracy Flick Can’t Win is many things: of-the-moment cultural criticism, a darkly comic drama of human relationships in suburbia, a moving sendup and a novel of racing momentum. By its end, Tracy is headed either for the triumph she’s been seeking since she was a high school student, or a meltdown the likes of which Green Meadow has never seen–or maybe both.

Perrotta’s classic combination of insight, humor and empathy is perhaps perfected in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. This novel has something for both the reader with a gimlet eye on the real world and the reader seeking an escape from it.


Rating: 7 bigger and better things.

Come back Friday for my interview with Perrotta.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

This classicist’s reconsideration of famous Greek myths from various female perspectives combines cultural and literary criticism, humor and wit.

Classicist Natalie Haynes (The Furies; A Thousand Ships) brings her prodigious expertise to Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, a thorough consideration of the perspectives, reputations and visibility of some of ancient Greece’s most famous female characters. The title refers to the first correction Haynes offers: rather than the mythic Pandora’s box, Pandora in the original Greek opened a jar, which is only the first of several misconceptions. Not that there will ever be an authoritative version: even Homer, Haynes reminds us, drew on earlier sources. Myths “operate in at least two timelines: the one in which they are ostensibly set, and the one in which any particular version is written,” and Haynes has a firm grasp of numerous iterations. In her capable hands, Pandora and others appear as multifaceted, complex characters, even across conflicting accounts. Best of all, despite its impressive depth of research, Pandora’s Jar is never dry, and frequently great fun.

After the opening chapter’s title character, Haynes introduces readers to Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and finally Penelope. Readers unfamiliar with their stories are guided through the relevant versions. These myths involve traumas of marriage, motherhood, rape and betrayal; their themes are serious and unforgiving. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the misogyny and erasure that Pandora, the Amazons, Eurydice and others have experienced have surprisingly modern origins. “Not for the first time, we see that an accurate translation has been sacrificed in the pursuit of making women less alarming (and less impressive) in English than they were in Greek.” Among Haynes’s subjects, “some have been painted as villains (Clytemnestra, Medea), some as victims (Eurydice, Penelope), some have been literally monstered (Medusa),” but each contains depths: “Medusa is–and always has been–the monster who would save us.”

Haynes’s authorial voice is remarkable: expressive, nuanced, impassioned. Her tone is absolutely accessible, even conversational, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Haynes (also a stand-up comic) is as well versed in the modern world and its concerns as in the ancients. The book opens with 1981’s Clash of the Titans, and refers to Beyonce and Wonder Woman with the same ease and mastery as it does Homer, Ovid, Euripides, Aristotle, Aeschylus and many more ancients and more recent writers. Haynes’s assessments of the visual arts (from ancient pottery through Renaissance paintings to modern television and movies) offer another dimension in this meticulous study.

The classics are as relevant, subversive and entertaining as ever in this brilliant piece of work. Clever, moving, expert, Pandora’s Jar is a gem, equally for the serious fan or scholar of Greek myth, for the feminist or for the reader simply absorbed by fine storytelling across time and geography.


This review originally ran in the January 18, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 gazes.
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