cover image The Bloodied Nightgown and Other Essays

The Bloodied Nightgown and Other Essays

Joan Acocella. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-60809-5

Essayist Acocella (Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints) shines in this splendid anthology of literary criticism originally published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books between 2007 and 2021. Interrogating the enduring appeal of such classics as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Acocella argues in the title essay that the allure of Bram Stoker’s Dracula lies in how the novel stirs up tension by using multiple first-person narrators unaware of “all that the others have told us,” leading readers to wonder “when are these people going to figure out what is going on?” Other entries profile such figures as Pliny the Younger, Richard Pryor, and Andy Warhol; Acocella contends that the detailed character portraits sketched by Alexander Waugh, Evelyn’s grandson, in Fathers and Sons, a group biography of the male writers in the Waugh family, remind readers of “the inherited vigor of English literature—the sheer, knotty concreteness of it, sometimes rude, always robust.” The pieces brim with erudition and playfulness (“I read all sixty-six of [Agatha] Christie’s detective novels, and I have guessed exactly two of the culprits”), offering approachable insights into literary masterpieces both new and old. Smart and accessible, this is a blast. Illus. Agent: Robert Cornfield, Robert Cornfield Literary. (Feb.)