Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: "You Know Who You Are" by Ben Dolnick

Ben Dolnick's latest novel follows The Vines—Arthur and Alice and their three children, Will, Jacob and Cara. The Vines are your typical family living a fairly uneventful life in suburban Maryland. Jacob, the middle child, doesn't have the same self-confidence and self-assurance that his siblings do, and longs for approval, to fit in. When Alice is diagnosed with cancer, Jacob takes advantage of the ensuing chaos to explore his new freedom, causing harmless adolescent trouble and, ultimately, pursuing his first romantic relationship. And when Alice dies, his personality takes on new sensitivity, which he tries to use to his advantage.

You Know Who You Are focuses on Jacob as he moves through high school, college and life after graduation. His relationships are always slightly off-kilter, whether with his family, friends or various girlfriends. Even as he grows he still feels as if he lives in Will's shadow, although Will has his own troubles figuring life out. But all of this uncertainty, and the struggles that Jacob experiences, makes him a tremendously sympathetic character, and it's one of the reasons this book is an enjoyable read.

I love books about family dynamics. While this family is a little less dysfunctional than most, I still found Jacob's story, and that of the entire Vine family, very interesting. It took me a little while to get completely hooked, but once I did, I found myself flying through the book. The plot explores very familiar territory, but Dolnick's storytelling ability makes even the familiar seem slightly different. This is one of those books that lacks fireworks but relies on the strength of its characters to tell a compelling story. I enjoyed it a lot.

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