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Winner of the National Book Award
By Jincy Willett
(Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press: New York) $23.95/hardcover Fiction

Jincy Willett's wicked sense of humor has garnered onstage accolades from satirist David Sedaris, urging audiences to run and pick up her first book, a short story collection, Jenny and the Jaws of Life. Now comes Willett's first novel, audaciously titled Winner of the National Book Award.

Just past the prologue, the reader begins to understand the title. Winner is the story of Dorcas and Abigail, fraternal twins born and raised in Rhode Island, now in their late 30s and distinguished more by their differences than by their unique sisterly relationship.

Dorcas, the novel's narrator, is a librarian with a quick intellect and a no-nonsense demeanor. At the beginning of the book, she has just received a copy of local author/therapist Hilda DeVilbiss' new book, a memoir of Abigail's victimization by a family friend, Conrad Lowe, now dead. Hilda is married to Guy, a poet and former winner of the National Book Award, and her sensational tale of love, abuse and murder is likely to win the prize as well for its lurid details and trendy psychobabble sensationalism -- qualities that appall Dorcas.

Each chapter of Winner opens with a short passage from Hilda's account, followed by a long correction by Dorcas. The book moves through the long Rhode Island winter and through Abigail's unfortunate affair and eventual marriage to Conrad. Abigail's a life-giver, a sumptuous force, literally starved by her evil spouse's greed and self-centeredness. Dorcas, both observer and participant, tells the tale of their coupling and her complicity with unblinking honesty.

Winner of the National Book Award skewers pop culture trends while planting the book in solid New England soil, managing to be bleak and woefully funny at the same time. Characters that could come across as cartoon cutouts are so fully fleshed by the book's end that the reader walks away feeling as if she has discovered a new friend -- a person brutal in her honesty but grounded in her self-knowledge, someone utterly reliable. Dorcas is a brilliant fictitious character. One comes away wondering how much of Jincy Willett has found its way into this intriguing persona.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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