Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Driving forward: Behrens's solid second effort

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If there is a male equivalent to "chick lit," Peter Behrens's latest novel, The O'Briens, is probably it, a detail-rich, character-driven historical novel that lightly touches issues of family loyalty and individual aspirations. Less weighty, and less gripping, than his 2006 debut novel, The Law of Dreams, the present tale follows Joe O'Brien, the patriarch of the title family, from childhood in the late 19th century into his dotage in 1960.

Industrial and military history appear almost as characters — as does New York City, regularly and sometimes jarringly — guiding the human players along their courses, which are more beautifully embellished straight lines than twisting paths of plot.

Sadly, the deep echoes of Joe's failure to make his peace with a merciful action taken in his youth require Behrens to shallow out other aspects of his story. An early metaphor serves as an example: Joe gets engaged and then, moments later, he and his fiancée literally watch two people die in a plane crash. The moment is beautifully drawn, though, with precision and grace amid the tragedy.
THE O'BRIENS | by Peter Behrens | Pantheon Books | 384 pages | $25.95