Saturday, June 4, 2016

"The Children," by Ann Leary

“The Children” (St. Martin’s, 2016), by Ann Leary, combines two elements of one of the types of novels I enthusiastically lean toward: a focus on a family and their various relationships with each other and with other people in their circle(s), and a family home that is the setting for most of the action. This novel also includes, unexpectedly to the reader until at least halfway through, elements of a psychological thriller, and a surprise ending (although of course there are clues). Leary is the author of the bestselling “The Good House” of a few years ago (see my post of 2/11/13), a novel that also focused on characters in the confined setting of a house in a small town. In the case of “The Children” the town is called “Lakeside,” in Connecticut. The family in question is a blended one; the main resident of the home, Joan, married the owner, the late Whit, and both brought small children to the marriage. Now the children are grown, but both their love and resentments from the past are resurfacing, and the resulting fissures, aggravated by the both charismatic and jarring presence of the love interest of one of the (step)siblings, form the spine of the plot. Other complications include psychological issues in at least two of the siblings. Interesting subplots/themes include music (Whit was a banjo maker and his children are musical) and Internet/blogging activities (one of the characters has a parenting blog, although she is not a parent, and there are various musings about the power of the Internet). All these elements combine for a compelling novel, and I couldn’t stop reading it. Yet when it ended, it left me let down and with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Why? Maybe the fairly sudden switch to thriller mode? Maybe the characters just didn’t reach out and make me care abut them? Or maybe something else I can’t put my finger on. I am, once again, reminded of the unpredictability of readers' feelings toward a book. A few works are unquestionably masterful (oh how I wish there were a female or neutral substitute for this word, and for “masterpiece”!); some I like for my own reasons and because of my own tastes; some I don’t particularly like but I can see why others do, again a matter of taste; and some seem unquestionably subpar. But except for the clear occupants of both ends of the scale (and even these can change with the passing of time and changes in critical judgments), these are to some extent -- aside from fairly obvious divisions along the scale -- matters of judgment, taste, and personal preference.
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