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Selected reviews of American Ending

"It is small acts of inventiveness, generosity, and love that keep individuals going when hard times close in. This is the wisdom and warmth of American Ending, which resurrects a community of immigrants from a century ago in magical, living detail to tell a story that rings true in the present."

—Oprah's Spring Reading List


"When prizewinning author Mary Kay Zuravleff decided to base her fourth novel, American Ending, around her own family's arrival in America—Russian Orthodox 'Old Believers' who immigrated about 100 years ago to work in the coal mines in Pensylvania— . . . she didn't expect the story she was telling to feel so relevant today."

—Interview with Carole Burns in the Washington Post


"Inspired by her own family's history, Zuravleff fashions a story that is at times sad but magnificently inspiring. It is a story of hardship but also of hope and courage. Zuravleff exhibits a master's touch in creating characters that are real and moving and who pull the reader into their experiences. . . . This is a fine book that cries out for a sequel. For lovers of historical fiction, it is a book which must be read."

—Historical Novel Society


"This atmospheric, animated story captures the sooty mining town and Yelena's tight-knit immigrant home through vibrant descriptions of customs, celebrations, chores, meals, and 'Old Believer' religion."

—Foreword Reviews


"I'm named for my two grandmothers, mary and Kay, . . . and my latest novel, American Ending, is inspired by their story: immigrants who face exploitation, discrimination, a pandemic, and the hearbreak fo who gets to be an American citizen—100 years ago."

—MKZ in the Daily Beast


"The narrator's voice and her story are so unusually vivid it feels like Zuravleff is channeling a real person."

—Kirkus Review


Selected reviews of Man Alive!


"Above all, this is a family novel for smart people; the smarter you are, the better you’ll like Man Alive! What makes this book so terrific? Mostly, it’s Zuravleff’s masterful use of language, particularly dialogue." The Washington Post

"Man Alive! is electric. Open its pages or plug in your Kindle. I hope you will be as charged by it as I was." Huffington Post

"Zuravleff mines the Lerner family’s subsequent unraveling with impressive intelligence and sly humor." People

"Brilliantly bizarre. Plenty of books offer a variation on the midlife crisis theme, but Man Alive! breathes new life into the subject, refreshing it with fantastical circumstance and violent humor." Bustle

"This is a wonderful and, in many ways, magical novel by a gifted author." Shelf Awareness

"Zuravleff is a master of the sentence, and so when I had the chance to sit down and discuss Man Alive! with her, I learned not only about her latest book but also something new about writing." The Rumpus

"A pediatric psychiatrist and family man is struck by lightning, and now the only thing he wants to do is set up the grill in the backyard and cook—all day, every day. Inspired by Zuravleff's new book, we rounded up five classic nonconformist-men-searching-for-meaning novels and films. Spoiler alert: It never ends well." Details

"Fire from the heavens to his hands—life is new and hot, tattooed and slathered in the smoky sauce of enlightenment and BBQ."
oneline review

"There’s nothing like a lightning strike to make you reassess your life. Novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff dissects family life with great heart and rapier wit." Parade

"Zuravleff is an exuberant writer with a sharp sense of humor, and her satiric jabs and joyful wordplay offer plenty to savor." Booklist

"If you’re looking for a smart, lighthearted novel about the way families deal with trauma, this one’s for you." Washingtonian

"It’s hard to find a way to make a story quirky, funny, dark, and sensual all at once. Zuravleff dreamed up a fantastic one, and she trusted herself as a writer enough to run with that impulse." The Toast

"Zuravleff captures both the humor and pain of family life and the fluid nature of its alliances. Highly recommended.” Library Journal

"With a skillful mix of comedy and the profound, Zuravleff has written an intriguing examination of family, marriage, and what it means to be truly alive." Beth Fish Reads

"As Owen adjusts to life after this profound event, his wife and children discover just how much the lightning changed them, as well." Daily Oklahoman

"Man Alive! explores, with unfailing compassion and a measure of humor, the dynamics of the Lerner family." Washington Independent Review of Books

"A half-wacky, half-sobering portrait of a family headed off the rails." Publishers Weekly

DC Modern Luxury profiles MKZ as an "Urban Bard."

A half dozen U.S. reviews for The Bowl Is Already Broken

"A tart, affectionate satire of the museum world's bickering and scheming." New York Times

"Wonderful stuff, these miniature visions in watercolor, ink and gold. Too bad their days—at least in Zuravleff's fictional museum complex—are numbered." Washington Post

"A winsome novel with a serious message—if loss is embedded in our everyday realities, then we must live as though the bowl is already broken." San Francisco Chronicle

"The matters in question are diversity and ethics, and Zuravleff doesn't duck hard answers, or put a pretty face on 'the international trafficking in sacred bric-a-brac.' Her wit is equal to her wisdom." Seattle Times

"A novel so sweetly goofy and gently warm that you’ll be falling in love with the central character, Promise Whittaker, and her creator before you’ve turned the first page." Star-Ledger

"Promise's engagement with her specialty should send readers to the library looking for poetry—which isn't a bad trick at all." Village Voice

And a half dozen Bowl reviews from across the pond

Epigram Online,UK
December 6, 2006

"Follow Promise as she struggles to conquer her demons in what is a challenging, provocative and original novel, depicting one of the most intriguing narrators in recent fiction."

Observer (London)
November 4, 2006
Reviewed by Olivia Laing

Handle with Care

Promise Whittaker is a juggler in more ways than one, balancing the needs of two children and an opinionated husband with the rather weightier demands of the National Museum of Asian Art, to which she's unwillingly been appointed acting director. She'd rather be lying on the sofa, reading her beloved Rumi and avoiding the issue of her suspected pregnancy. Instead, she's caught up in the whirlwind of politics, embezzlement and breakages that make up museum and family life. Delightful as the hapless Promise is, the real star is Zuravleff, who twirls from domestic disaster to a learned treatise on Jingdezhen porcelain without missing a beat. Wordplay abounds, but despite the comedy of errors, she mulls the ethics of exhibiting work appropriated from other countries, a question as complex as it is pertinent.

Independent on Sunday (London)
October 23, 2005
The Bowl Is Already Broken by Mary Kay Zuravleff
Reviewed by Sue Gaisford

Nervous Wrecks and Big Bare Breasts

Letters of complaint to the (fictional) Museum of Asian Art in Washington fall into three categories: 'I'm sorry you were offended by the a) big bare breasts; b) intercourse (between consenting, multi-armed gods, eager lovers or men preying on camels); c) graphic portrayals of bloody mayhem, including severed heads depicted either singly or strung together as necklace or belt.' Promise Whitaker, Acting Director of the museum, will never get round to answering these complaints. They sit on her desk and multiply, labelled, like everything else on its Himalayan surface, URGENT!

Promise, a woman so diminutive that a resentful colleague describes her as little more than a knick-knack, is the magnificent heroine of this highly original, extremely funny and surprisingly moving novel. Her speciality is the study of 16th-century illustrations of a 13th-century manuscript but her sudden promotion leaves her with little time for peaceful research, especially when the authorities, prompted by a nervously xenophobic 'patriotism', declare that the museum's collection is to be disbanded and the place transformed into a fast-food restaurant, with oriental overtones. The first she knows of this disastrous decision is the arrival of a man from 'Wok On'.

The book begins with Promise's grand opening salvo in the battle to retain the museum. There is to be a public presentation of an ancient and beautiful porcelain bowl, a symbol of all that is fine in careful conservation. As you've guessed, it is dropped and comprehensively smashed. Disastrous as this incident is, Promise is comforted by echoes of a famous story: a sage, drinking from a beautiful glass, advised his followers not to become too attached to such an object, for all things are transitory and one day it would break. To him, indeed, it was already broken.

Such phlegmatic stoicism contrasts sharply with the untrammelled mayhem of Promise's home life. In her crumbling house lurks an affectionate and volatile husband, a dangerously depressed child-minder, a luridly incontinent puppy and two unpredictable children: Felix, who urgently needs a pink bike for his sixth birthday (and why shouldn't pink be his favourite colour?) and Lydia, whose current favourite riddle is 'What sits on the bottom of the ocean and shakes?' As Promise faces up to a third, decidedly inconvenient pregnancy, the answer is all too close to home. It is 'a nervous wreck'.

This is a sharply perceptive novel, beautifully written, richly textured and awash with memorable, strongly drawn characters. The plot gathers momentum through bold shifts of time and place, drawing in embezzlement, gay flirtation, a violent kidnapping and an eyewateringly real childbirth. It culminates in the serene and seraphic visitation of the Dalai Lama. Luckily, His Holiness thoroughly enjoys this irreverent Buddhist joke (as, one day, will Lydia): What did the Dalai Lama say to the hot-dog vendor? 'Make me one with everything.'

The Guardian (London)
October 15, 2005
The Bowl Is Already Broken by Mary Kay Zuravleff
Reviewed by Anna Shapiro

Nice Work

Critics often complain that nobody writes about work, the central fact of most people's lives. That cannot be said of Mary Kay Zuravleff’s second novel, set in a Washington DC museum, complete with infighting curators, a secret memo, a revered mentor, an embezzler, and scholars and conservators in love with their work. Zuravleff brings to this world a fineness of distinction and a willingness to leave some crises unresolved that has a scholar's honest factuality as well as an artist's sensual touch. The central character, somewhat unpromisingly named Promise Whittaker, is a specialist in Persian miniatures, and very quickly you feel that in reading this, you too will see with great refinement every sort of intricate detail and relation.

The book opens with the destruction of a $1.2 million 18th-century Chinese bowl, fumbled by a besotted curator at a ceremony receiving the bowl into the museum's collection, under the leadership of acting director, six months' pregnant Promise. The joke about Promise is that while she is a miracle of perceptiveness about illuminated manuscripts, about the world around her she is always the last to know. Her colleagues see she's pregnant long before she does and, though she's taken over the museum for the adored Joseph X, she doesn't know that he retired so suddenly because he'd been told that this world-class gallery was to be converted into a food court.

Needless to say, she finds out. Much of the book is devoted to strategies for saving the institution and turning the fumble of the bowl into an asset. But much as plot drives you on, it is seldom the story that stays with you when you finish a book, but rather its characters and insights. What is most pleasurable here is the author's casually interjected portrayal of what it feels like to be a wife and mother: liking your husband but not really wanting to have sex when he does; coming home to find the nanny has parked the children in front of the TV. Most of all, there is the constant, unappeasable need of the children, and little ever cleaned up or repaired.

Promise has her moments of irritability, disenchantment and pessimism, thank goodness. The other great pleasure and personality is the museum, recognisably the great Freer Gallery. It's a heresy to suggest that art might matter more than human lives, but, in this otherwise non-tearjerking novel, reading in the acknowledgements the hint that the Freer might actually be under threat made this reader's eyes sting with tears.

Daily Mail (London)
October 14, 2005
The Bowl Is Already Broken by Mary Kay Zuravleff
Reviewed by Ross Gilfillan

The bowl in question is a 300-year-old piece of Chinese porcelain, decorated exquisitely with magpies and plums. It has associations with Thomas Jefferson, Marlene Dietrich and John F. Kennedy, and forms the centrepiece of an important exhibition whose success is crucial to the future of the National Museum of Asian Art.

When the bowl slips from a curator's grasp and shatters on the steps of the museum, plans to turn the institution into a food court and ship the exhibits to other museums look certain to go ahead. Promise Whittaker, the museum's diminutive Acting Director is determined to prevent its closure, and, aided by her partner Leo--an employee of Amnesty International--she rallies her bickering, backbiting and embezzling staff. While Promise fights for the museum, her predecessor, Joseph Lattimore, is fighting for his life, having been taken prisoner by separatist militia during a field trip to the Taklamaken desert.

Zuravleff has conjured a warm and intelligent, gently humorous entertainment set in a rarified and unusual environment. Deftly woven into her story are questions pertinent to the world she describes: should looted artefacts be returned to their place of origin and, when faced with human suffering, is art itself an irrelevance?

Sunday Times (London)
December 11, 2005
The Bowl Is Already Broken by Mary Kay Zuravleff
Reviewed by Elizabeth Buchan

Mary Kay Zuravleff's The Bowl Is Already Broken (Bloomsbury £ 16.99) is an altogether more leisurely affair. Promise Whittaker, the heavily pregnant acting director of the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, is fronting a ceremony to unveil a priceless Jingdezhen porcelain bowl. At which point, her curator drops it. Piecing together the events that led up to and the consequences that follow from this disaster makes up a story that encompasses intricate office politics, ruminations on art, embezzlement, hostage-taking, the tribulations of a pregnant, exhausted working mother and a bid to close the museum in order to turn it into a "food court". Wry, funny, intelligent and knowledgeable, the author's voice is hugely seductive. If the novel itself is a little baggy and overcrowded, its central vision - "admit there is loss, and all can be treasured" - makes up for it.

Mail on Sunday (London)
October 16, 2005
The Bowl Is Already Broken by Mary Kay Zuravleff

For Promise Whittaker, pregnant again at 43, life at the National Museum of Asian Art isn't getting any easier. Her mentor has run off, her favourite curator has dropped a precious exhibit and a third colleague is embezzling money to pay for fertility treatment. Great fun.

The Independent (London)
October 19, 2005
The Bowl Is Already Broken by Mary Kay Zuravleff
Reviewed by Marianne Brace

Musem Life Carefully Curated by a Mistress of Misappropriation

A museum offers the familiar dynamics of a self-contained community, while putting its characters under the glass normally reserved for exhibits. Mary Kay Zuravleff, who has worked for Washington's Smithsonian Institution, uses that world to question nationalism, art-world ethics and the raison d'etre of museums in this novel.

Things are looking grim for the Museum of Asian Art. The esoteric collections of Chinese imperial porcelain, carved jades and Japanese prints are threatened by plans to convert the galleries into an ace cafe with no museum attached, because 'People want bathrooms and bagels near the subway'. Faced with this bleak prospect, the dynamic director disappears to a dig in the Taklamakan desert (where he's promptly taken hostage), leaving petite Promise Whittaker to defend the Alamo.

But Promise would rather bury herself in 16th-century Persian manuscripts than rally colleagues fixed on their own rivalries. Dandy Arthur Franklin is obsessed with a bowl once owned by Thomas Jefferson; patrician Talbot Perry is miffed that he didn't land the acting directorship; while Min Chen, curator of ancient Chinese art, is financing her fertility treatment with travel funds. To crown it all, Promise finds she's pregnant.

Zuravleff sets the bowl rolling in the first sentence. Arthur's ceramic treasure slips from his grasp and is transformed with each bounce into dust and shards. Scrolling back six months, she shows us how we got to this shattering moment. But was it a mishap or a canny means of focusing attention on the quiet museum with its irreplaceable booty?

Spiking her tale with humour, Zuravleff shows how neatly everything interconnects. The museum director, kidnapped by vicious guerrillas, has spent his working life surrounded by art portraying 'violence too graphic for cable television'. Zuravleff creates credible characters and is emotionally astute, particularly regarding relationships where couples feel strained by too much work and not enough time. However, her tone flips between wise and cute.

Zuravleff soaks her prose with erudite facts about everything from bronze dings to the exquisite Sufi poetry of Rumi, and ponders the historical legacy of those bagging artefacts from poorer cultures. Yet is the novelist- collector so different? Enriching her pages with such cultural references, Zuravleff might also be guilty of a kind of artistic plunder.

The Telegraph
October 16, 2005
The Bowl Is Already Broken by Mary Kay Zuravleff
Reviewed by Elena Seymenliyska

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

A student of Buddhism asks his great teacher, "You say we shouldn't cling to anything, but you have a monastery, disciples, even a beautiful water glass. Why?" The teacher replies, "You're right, I like this glass. It's useful, it's beautiful, and it's a reminder of my friend who gave it to me. But I am not attached to it, because it is transitory - one day, it will slip from my hand or be knocked over. I accept that. For me, the glass is already broken."

This is the story that comes to Promise Whittaker's mind during her first public event as acting director of the Museum of Asian Art in Washington DC. Her former university tutor and mentor, Joseph, has suddenly resigned from his post as director to go on a dig in the Chinese desert. In his place, he has picked not Arthur, the gay ceramics specialist, nor Fatima, the Islamic art specialist and chador-clad glamour-puss, nor Min, the curator of Chinese art who's embezzling museum funds to pay for fertility treatments.

No, he has picked Promise, a petite, cartoon-voiced woman from Oklahoma who lives in a dilapidated house, has a sandal-wearing, dope-smoking husband who works for Amnesty, two kids, a third on the way, and a puppy that's chewed up an ancient manuscript. Promise would rather spend her days peering through a magnifying glass at 16th-century paintings of 13th-century Persians, pondering whether they were painted with a brush made from a squirrel's whisker or the chin hairs of a kitten.

Instead, she has to fill the big man's shoes at the ceremony for the museum's acquisition of a priceless 18th-century bowl. This bowl has travelled from China's imperial family and the court of Louis XVI to Thomas Jefferson and Marlene Dietrich. (It's just the right size, thinks Promise, to heat half a bag of frozen peas in the microwave.) But, as Arthur's triumphant speech in its honour comes to a close, the bowl makes what will be its final journey from his shaking hands to a frantic game of hot potato and down the museum's marble steps.

"When the dust settled, there was only dust." The opening line of Mary Kay Zuravleff's second novel neatly summarises the catastrophe, and it also offers a distillation of the author's light, crisp and engaging style. A former editor for the Smithsonian in Washington DC, Zuravleff takes the reader behind the scenes of an institution peopled by enthusiasts and eccentrics. What the punter might imagine to be a world where beautiful decisions are made in an intelligent, courteous manner turns out to be more like mud-wrestling.

While Promise and her colleagues devote themselves to the treasures of the past, the museum's xenophobic secretary has his eye on the spoils of the future. A memo on plans to "reconfigure the Museum of Asian Art as a food court" lies behind the previous director's retreat to the desert.

Promise's first inkling of this masterplan is when a man in a "Wok On" cap comes to measure up the conference room. As she gathers forces to fight the Fu-dog garbage cans in the foyer and the "Takee Outee" counter in the gallery, news reaches her that Joseph has been taken hostage. And, as if she didn't have enough on her plate, Promise is starting to get the distinct feeling that the accident with the bowl wasn't quite what it seemed.

The pace is certainly kept up, as Zuravleff alternates between characters and juggles parallel storylines. Her heroine is something of a juggler herself, combining a demanding career, a hectic home life and, literally, an entertaining talent for juggling. Promise is reminiscent of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs - a powerhouse of intellect and energy with a down-to-earth manner and unprepossessing exterior.

There are only a couple of snags in the otherwise smooth patina of this enjoyable book. Zuravleff's tone veers towards the self-congratulatory, repeatedly exhorting the reader to reflect on how "prized", intelligent and enlightened her rainbow nation of characters are, what "heady journeys" they'd all made to be in the museum, and how they are "the opposite of xenophobic". Such eagerness to spell out liberal credentials isn't really necessary with readers that will, most likely, come from the same crowd.

Zuravleff is also pre-emptively defensive of her Middle Eastern characters. It has become somewhat commonplace to discuss recent fiction from America with reference to 9/11. The Bowl Is Already Broken is set in the period July 1999 to January 2000, so it cannot concern itself with that event, yet Zuravleff pulls her punches in matters pertaining to Islam, though she isn't afraid of cliché when it comes to the "inscrutable" Chinese.