Friday, April 4, 2008

Group Review: Before You Know Kindness

Summary: Bohjalian's new novel begins with a literal bang: a bullet from a hunting rifle accidentally strikes Spencer McCullough, an extreme advocate for animal rights, leaving him seriously wounded. The weapon—owned by his brother-in-law, John, and shot by his 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte—becomes the center of a lawsuit and media circus led by Spencer's employer, FERAL (Federation for Animal Liberation), a dead ringer for PETA. The many-faceted satire Bohjalian (Midwives, etc.) crafts out of these events revolves around Spencer and Jon's families, but also involves a host of secondary figures. Bohjalian excels at getting inside each character's head with shifts of diction and perspective, though he makes it difficult for readers to connect with any one in particular. This is in part because his portraits are often unsympathetic; the characters are allowed to hoist themselves on their own petards. While some are credibly flawed—Spencer is both a loving father and an obnoxious activist—others are cartoonishly mocked with their own thoughts, like high-powered attorney Paige, who mourns the loss of her leather chairs and briefcases, hidden away for as long as FERAL is a lucrative client. If there is a grounded center to this work, it is 10-year-old Willow, Spencer's niece, who distinguishes herself from this baggy ensemble by always trying to do the right thing. She alone is spared the narrator's irony, and it is Willow, years after the accident, who has the last word. Bohjalian's skewering of the animal rights movement gets the better of his domestic drama, but his skillful storytelling will engage readers. ~Publisher's Weekly/

Jenn's Review: If we hadn’t been reading this for our book club, I probably would have put it down a long time ago. The description would have grabbed me and I may have picked it up on my own to read, but I would never have stuck with it. I have issues. Most of them are best explained by one of my favorite quotes:

"At least two-thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity: idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political ideas."~ Aldous Huxley

Being someone who has always been able to see both sides of any argument, I take real issue with fanaticism. I understand being passionate about one’s beliefs - and anyone who knows me will say I’m passionate about many things- but I don’t understand fanaticism. I can’t comprehend being so lost in one’s own beliefs that one is oblivious to the world around him/her.

So from the beginning, I must say I strongly disliked Spencer. His “proselytizing zeal” and self absorption made me want to put the book down. As a matter of fact I felt that way about all of the characters. There isn’t a single one of them that I liked or to whom I could relate. Actually, that’s not true; the one character I liked was Patrick, the baby. Everyone else was so wrapped up in their own lives and feelings that they thought of no one but themselves -especially the mothers. And while I realize that there are people like that out there, a whole family of them was too much for me. I try never to be around people like that and so reading about them was excruciating for me. Having never read Bohjalian before I cannot truly define his values by this single work, but it seemed to that he has a pretty poor view of humanity that he didn’t write one character that felt approachable ~ not one who could see beyond themselves. I also came away feeling that he has a poor view of today’s youth as all of them in the book were so seriously flawed.

It wasn’t until at least three-quarters of the way through the book that I started to feel the need to read through to its conclusion, and still I was disappointed. Yes, Spencer learned a lesson about fanaticism of sorts (I actually think that, in the end, he just turned his fanatical behavior towards a different object - his daughter & by way of Charlotte, his marriage), and the others learned a half-hearted lesson about paying more attention to their children, but they all brushed off the abuse of drugs and alcohol with the, “well we did it when we were kids” excuse; and that just doesn’t wash for me. That’s a petty defense many parents seem to use to absolve themselves and their children of any foul. As a former teacher, I just can’t accept this. This low level tolerance, is exactly how the children get themselves into trouble to begin with… this patting them on the head and sending them on their way shows a lack of boundaries. Boundaries mean rules and consequences and children need boundaries. I realize that the accident was a very serious consequence in and of itself for the children, but there was no closure on their mistake for me, there was no discussion, just Spencer’s new devil-may-care attitude. I don't understand the parental complacency on anyone's part. This disturbed me. It felt like the book took way too long to go somewhere and then when we finally arrived the denouement was crammed into a few chapters and not dealt with fully.

I realize that I tend to stick to children’s lit because there is always a clear moral, and maybe that’s my problem with this book. I don’t like the message it sends, but perhaps it isn’t meant to send a message. I’m not going to grade this book as harshly as I originally intended to after I finished reading. This book made me angry and it made me think, and after all, isn’t that what a book is supposed to do?

Jenn's Final Take: 3.9/5

Julie's Review: When I read the summary for the book after Lisa made it her pick for our group read, I wasn't sure what to think but I knew she loved the author so I was looking forward to trying him out. I do have to say, "Thanks Lisa!" This is another author I will be reading a lot over time.

All of the characters from Spencer to his boss Dominque were all very interesting and flawed. I think flawed characters are what makes great stories. The story starts off with a glimpse into the results of the accident that happens later in the book. I enjoyed how Mr. Bohjalian put together a good story before he got to the pivotal moment, which made that moment all that more meaningful. I loved Nan because while she's the matriarch of the family, at times it seemed like she was on the outside looking in. I adored Willow because she seemed wise beyond her years and yet innocent at the same time. Although at times I had to remind myself that she was just 10 going on 11 and not older. Charlotte was depicted perfectly for a 12 going on 13 tween girl, all that angst and hormones.

I also felt that the adult marriages were written realistically, although I'm not sure one of the reconciliations would have gone down that easily but it is fiction. I don't have very strong opinions one way or the other about animal rights and gun control but I did find them to be fascinating to have as plot points in the story. Do I think that we need stronger gun control laws? Probably. Do I think that the mistreatment of animals is horrific? Absolutely. Do I think that some hunting helps over population of some animals? Yes. Do I feel that there are extremists on both of these issues? Yes. And I do feel that both sides have valid points but when taken to an extreme level like FERAL does, I think it turns more people off than it attracts to their cause.

At times I felt that the story dragged in places and that it was maybe too "clean" of an ending but overall to me, this story was one of family, tragedy and finding your way and finding your way back.

Julie's Final Take: 4.5/5

Lisa's Review: Chris Bohjalian has the uncanny knack for moral dilemmas and Before You Know Kindness is no exception. A magnificent family drama, Bohjalian examines both sides of the animal rights debate. The thing I tend to enjoy most about Bohjalian's novels are his characters - always fully formed, always interesting - I often marvel at his ability to write from the point of view of women and children. I particularly enjoyed from the point of view of Willow, a ten-year old child endowed with the wisdom of someone multiple times here age, but still innocent and impressionable. Spencer, however, bugged me a little bit - are people truly that extreme? I suppose they must be and in the end did he really learn anything? Was it simply his fear that drove him to "change" or did he just begin overcompensating elsewhere?

I must admit that I was hoping to have a dose of Bohjalian's trademark(?) twist at the end, though we did get some information that allowed us to view all we'd read before from a sligtly different perspective.

Despite some slightly saggy bits of narrative and no true consequenses, except for guilt and the fear of loss, this novel shines, because it made me think, wonder and reflect.

Lisa's Final Take: 4.25/5


Jeane April 5, 2008 at 7:56 AM  

I did not really like the first Bohjalian book I read, Midwives. This one sounds a little better, even though it seems y'all weren't thrilled about it!

Julie April 5, 2008 at 5:50 PM  

A 4.5 is pretty strong for me. :) My sister is reading Midwives now & enjoying it. I believe Lisa liked it too.

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