A passionate, provocative story of complex family bonds and the search for identity set within the ivy-covered walls of a New England boarding school
When Charlie Garrett arrives as a young teacher at the shabby-yet-genteel Abbott School, he finds a world steeped in privilege and tradition. Fresh out of college and barely older than the students he teaches, Charlie longs to leave his complicated southern childhood behind and find his place in the rarefied world of Abbottsford. Before long he is drawn to May Bankhead, the daughter of the legendary school chaplain, but when he discovers he cannot be with her, he forces himself to break her heart, and she leaves Abbott—he believes forever. He hunkers down in his house in the foothills of Massachusetts, thinking his sacrifice has contained the damage and controlled their fates.
Nearly a decade later, his peace is shattered when his golden-boy half brother, Nick, comes to Abbott to teach, and May returns as a teacher as well. Students and teachers alike are drawn by Nick’s magnetism, and even May falls under his spell. When Charlie pushes his brother and his first love together, with what he believes are the best of intentions, a love triangle ensues that is haunted by desire, regret, and a long-buried mystery.
With wisdom and emotional generosity, LeCraw takes us through a year that transforms both the teachers and students of Abbott forever. Page-turning, lyrical, and ambitious, The Half Brother is a powerful examination of family, loyalty, and love. – Goodreads
This is going to be a difficult review to write. I had high hopes for this book – and I really, really wanted to love it. It started off well enough, and I was with it right up until the first major plot twist (which I guessed and was kind of disappointed to have gotten right). But after that it started to lose me – particularly since I guessed the second major plot twist nearly as soon as the first happened. I spent the entire middle of the book just waiting for it to happen, and by the time it did, I was just bored.
But let me back up a minute, and start with what did work. First of all, the setting. The majority of the story takes place in a small town outside of Boston, where our protagonist works at an exclusive prep school. I particularly loved the initial descriptions of the homes and scenery. I felt like I could see the rippling lake and smell crisp bite of snow in the air. LeCraw’s deliberately-paced writing style lends itself perfectly to drawing a vibrant scene.
She also does a great job of capturing the complexities of family relationships, and the often conflicting emotions that go along with it. Her characters all have strong and yet challenging family ties (both biological and acquired), and they are at the very core of this novel. It’s also a story about the damage secrets too long kept can do out in the open.
Unfortunately the descriptive writing style meant that between major plot points, there was a lot of down time. Much of this was spent wearing a path through the same territory – a lot of the main character’s daily routine (school, home, friend’s house, home, school….) and his musings on the people around him. His thought patterns quickly become familiar, and start to feel repetitive by mid-novel. Even some of the wording is re-iterated frequently (for example the half brother being described as “glowing”).
I think the main problem I had with the writing style, though, was how flowery and overly descriptive it was. There’s a time and place for waxing poetic about scenery and weather, but if it’s every second page, it’s too much. Here’s an example:
“The dining hall, the most modern building on campus, held its usual brightness, from the clerestory windows high in the roof ridge. It was a boon on a day like this, gray and wet with the last of the storm that had finally moved in for real on Sunday, blowing branches bare, plastering the leaves to the brick paths on the quad. The light was flat, full spectrum, honest. It shone without mercy or comment on Nick’s eye. I could see the shadings of color, from blue black to the healing greenish yellow at the edges.” – p. 134
This is the style of most of the book, and the heavy prose creates a feeling of distance between the reader and the character, like screen comprised of words that blurs the emotional impact of the story. I had trouble connecting with the main character, and since it’s a first person narrative, I therefore had trouble connecting to any of the secondary characters as seen through his eyes.
I think this is a book that will appeal to those who enjoy ruminating over dense prose and who enjoy stepping into the mind of an intensely introspective character. My frustration with this book was, I think, largely subjective. It’s not the type of writing I enjoy, and I found myself craving more in the way of plot development. Had the language been stripped down and simplified, I think I would have enjoyed the story more. If, like me, you find heavy description wearing, this may not be the book for you. However, if you’re excited for this book or if the style of the quoted paragraph above appeals to you, by all means, give it a try!
Author: Holly LeCraw
Published By: Doubleday Canada
Released: February 17, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Family, Character-Driven
Date Read: February 21-March 1, 2015