Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Review: "The Locals" by Jonathan Dee

Few contemporary authors have as keen an eye for observing society and personal dynamics as Jonathan Dee. His previous novels have looked at the haves and have-nots, the way the public revels in and revolts against scandal, and failing and thriving marriages, among other topics.

In his latest novel, The Locals, Dee takes on the foibles of a small New England town being caught in a tug of war between those who want the town to stay the same and those who believe it can be better than it is, and are willing to invest in it—as long as things go their way.

Howland, Massachusetts has never been much of a tourist attraction; there's really only one site worth seeing, the historical home in which a former railroad baron and his ill wife once lived. In the days post-9/11, Howland is, like many towns, populated by those who believe in personal freedoms and those who believe the government should do anything it can to keep people safe.

Mark Firth, a contractor and home restorer, was actually in New York City on 9/11, as he was planning to give a deposition in a case against the man who swindled him out of his family's savings. Now, as he worries about how much longer people will need his services and what that will do to his family, and thinks about those wealthy people who come up to Howland, build fancy houses, and leave them empty all winter, he wonders why some people have all the luck and others have to fight for every last thing.

Philip Hadi was one of those wealthy people, but after 9/11, he brought his family up from New York permanently, as he wasn't sure whether as a wealthy financial manager he might be a target of a subsequent attack against the U.S. He employs Mark's company to bolster his home's security features, and the two build a relationship of sorts, one which inspires Mark to look beyond contracting and home restoration and consider pursuing investment in Howland's housing market.

Meanwhile, Hadi, who enjoys the small-town feel of Howland and believes it can be more than it is, becomes the town's first selectman, and uses his money to essentially buy the town's loyalty, as he saves businesses and citizens from foreclosure and bankruptcy. But as he moves to turn the town into a wholly different place, and encroach on personal freedoms he doesn't agree with, the town starts to push back.

These stories play out against a backdrop of those of other Howland residents, including Mark's sister, brother, wife, daughter, and other citizens. There are stories of infidelities, alcoholism, struggling to find yourself, dealing with aging parents and feeling as if you're the only one carrying that weight, financial woes, etc.

I felt as if Dee tried a little too hard to make this book an epic story of sorts, because there are just so many characters mentioned in and out of different sections that it was difficult to remember who was whom. Then, suddenly, as the book would move into another section, an undisclosed amount of time would have elapsed and major (although perhaps not surprising) plot points would simply be mentioned in passing.

Dee is a great writer, and his storytelling shines through this book, which is a little more of a downer than I expected. I just wish he made his characters more appealing and sympathetic, because I didn't feel there was really anyone to root for. Additionally, I felt that the whole first section, although it helped develop a little bit of Mark's character, was nearly superfluous, so I'm not sure why it had to drag on as long as it did. Still, the social commentary Dee provides is tremendously insightful and on point, especially in today's political environment.

NetGalley and Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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