Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Book Review: "The Children" by Ann Leary

Boy, family relationships are tough enough to deal with, but when you throw money into the mix, all bets are off, you know?

Charlotte Maynard and her sister Sally grew up at "Lakeside," a large Connecticut home that has been in their stepfather's family for generations. At times it seemed as if their stepfather, affable musician and artisan "Whit" Whitman, cared more for Charlotte and Sally than his own two sons, Perry and Spin, who only visited Lakeside on weekends and vacations, and were treated a bit like houseguests.

When Whit died, a provision in the Whitman family trust allowed for his widow, Joan, to continue living at Lakeside. Slightly agoraphobic Charlotte lives with her mother, where she writes a secret (and quite successful) blog, and still has a complicated relationship with her old boyfriend Everett, who serves as the estate's caretaker and lives in a cottage nearby. Sally, a musician, has more than her own share of problems to contend with, and flits between New York City and Lakeside, where she both craves and is repelled by the love of her family.

The relative peace is shattered when Spin—everyone's favorite as both a child and a grownup—brings home his new fiancée, Laurel, a beautiful, confident, and utterly irresistible woman with a life full of accomplishments and an air of mystery. Laurel's glamour and energy bring an interesting dynamic to the family, and her curiosity and questions make her a catalyst for Charlotte in particular to begin acting outside of her comfort zone. But as Laurel begins ingratiating herself, old wounds are reopened, old secrets come to light, and hidden angers bubble to the surface, threatening displacement and dissatisfaction among everyone.

As she proved with her last book, The Good House, Ann Leary is at her best when she is chronicling complex, flawed characters and the ripples they cause. The characters in The Children, particularly Charlotte, Joan, Sally, and Everett (who is more than meets the eye), are pretty fascinating, and this book is at its best when examining their relationships, interactions, and foibles.

The problem is, not only is Laurel not complex, she's utterly a stock character. If reading my plot synopsis gives you an inkling of where you think the story will go because it sounds familiar, you're probably right. And that is what is utterly disappointing about the book—that such a talented writer would rely on cliché (and shallow cliché at that), without even giving an explanation of why the character does what she does. (It's funny; at one point in the book one character alludes to an old horror movie gimmick, but that holds utterly true for the book as well.)

While I didn't love this book, there's much to like, particularly Leary's characters and her storytelling ability. This may not be as good as her previous novel but it's still an interesting look at family dynamics and dysfunction—and when is that ever boring?

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