A rising star in a famous laboratory can track her success back to the one person in her life she’d like to forget in Megan Abbott’s “Give Me Your Hand.”
As a teenager, Kit Owens is fine with doing just enough to set herself up for a comfortable life. She never had a compelling reason to push herself until Diane Fleming quietly stepped into her life. The new girl with a troubled past, Diane seems to care only about achieving perfection, and she doesn’t understand why Kit wouldn’t want the same. The two become each other’s motivation to do better, go harder, working toward the common goal of a science scholarship funded by a doctor famous for her research on taboo disorders related to the female sex. Until one night, when Diane shares something with Kit that is terrible enough — “the worst thing anyone’s ever told me” — to erase any bond they have. More than 10 years later, Kit is the hardest-working member of Dr. Severin’s lab, angling for a coveted spot on the new premenstrual dysphoric disorder research team. Her lab mates, all men, are convinced she has it in the bag. But then Dr. Severin drops the bomb that she’s poached a stellar researcher from Harvard who will join the team immediately. That person is Diane. Kit has buried the memory of her old friend under years of pipetting, thousands of precisely cut samples and days bent under a fume hood: “After a bad dream, a Diane dream, I avoid the mirror … certain that if I looked, she might be there.” Who could truly forget Diane? And when she walks through the lab door the next day, “everything begins again.” Abbott has made the dark desires and secrets of the female psyche the life force of her novels. Under the surface of Kit and Diane’s research on women plagued by an “unbearable push of feelings, feelings gone out of control … a wretched curse” lives their own shared curse, something strong enough to tip the balance of their carefully regimented, chemical-clean world.
In Abbott’s deft hands, friendship is fused to rivalry, and ambition to fear, with an unsettling level of believability. It will take more than a cold shower to still the blood thumping in your ears when you finish this.
(Abbott will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. July 24 at BookPeople. Ace Atkins will speak and sign his new book, “The Sinners,” at the event. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
Reflecting on racism in America
In “What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America,” social and political analyst Michael Eric Dyson reflects on racial tensions in contemporary America.
In 1963, Robert Kennedy asked James Baldwin to organize a small, private gathering of prominent African-Americans in order to hear their views on combating segregation and discrimination. Dyson uses that meeting as a jumping-off point for an incisive look at the roles of politicians, artists, intellectuals and activists in confronting racial injustice and effecting change. The meeting, notes the author, was frustrating for Kennedy and his guests. Besides Baldwin, they included playwright Lorraine Hansberry, black activist Jerome Smith and entertainers Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. Hoping that a conversation would result in a practical “urban agenda,” Kennedy was stunned by “a gut punch of black rage.” For nearly three hours he listened to “violent, emotional verbal assaults,” especially from Smith, who claimed that he was “close to the moment where I’m ready to take up a gun.” To Kennedy, his guests seemed “more interested in witness than policy.” Their emotional testimony struck him as “hysterical.” For their part, they saw Kennedy as a well-meaning but ignorant white liberal. White America’s hatred of blackness, Kennedy’s guests agreed, “could never be solved solely by a governmental program.” The meeting, Dyson asserts, exposed rage that still persists, as blacks struggle to find “room to breathe within the smothering confines of white society” and public figures grapple for solutions. The author points to Minneapolis Council Member Andrea Jenkins and California Sen. Kamala Harris; black intellectuals Ta-Nehisi Coates, Erin Aubry Kaplan and Farah Jasmine Griffin; artists Jay-Z and Beyoncé; and sports figures Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick as inspiring figures courageous enough “to face down oppression in our land.” Dyson also celebrates the potent image of Wakanda in the movie “Black Panther,” which helps “remythologize blackness, to see blackness as an imagined kingdom of possibility, to see it as an alternative universe of humane endeavor.”
“What Truth Sounds Like” is an eloquent response to an urgent — and still-unresolved — dilemma.
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