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Book review

‘The Half Brother’ by Holly LeCraw

Holly LeCraw’s second novel is set in Massachusetts.
Holly LeCraw’s second novel is set in Massachusetts.
Holly LeCraw
Holly LeCraw

“The Half Brother” is a beautifully written novel with a big problem.

The sophomore effort by Holly LeCraw — after her well-received 2010 debut “The Swimming Pool” — offers a thoughtful meditation on family and mortality, with sympathetic characters and a well-drawn setting that will be recognizable to many. But this adult drama, set primarily in Massachusetts, is marred by the awkwardness of a central plot contrivance that arrives about a third of the way through and is so melodramatic and highly unlikely as to certainly derail some readers.

“The Half Brother” is at its core a love story. The central couple, who seem fated, are Charlie and May. He’s a transplanted Southerner who has come to a small-town New England boarding school to teach and, just maybe, escape his convoluted family history. The only family member he truly misses is his half-brother, Nicky, a troubled genius and his mother’s golden boy. May is the daughter of the school chaplain and a former student. When it is discovered that May’s father, who had been alternately a mentor and uneasy authority figure to Charlie, is dying, the two young people come together in a heated romance that feels natural, healthy, even life-affirming amid the dark circumstances.

Alas, it is not to be so easy. Life throws enough at people — and at these two — that it would seem LeCraw could find sufficient drama to complicate the lovers’ journey in the ordinary vicissitudes of family and fate. Nicky’s brilliance, for example, hides a dark side that draws on the themes of family and heredity, one of this book’s strong points. And as the novel moves in its stuttering forward motion — years interrupted by flashbacks, primarily to the travails of Charlie’s mother in her youth — other family members age and die, some without warning and others with slow grace.

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Indeed, one of the finest portions of this novel involves a deathbed vigil. Set during a blizzard, when Charlie’s emotional isolation is mirrored by his surroundings, it is a marvel of detail and emotion. As Charlie waits for his mother’s final breath, as well as for Nicky’s delayed arrival — or, at least, the end of the storm — the pace of the book slows.

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“My mother’s terrible breaths. One. Then the next.” LeCraw’s depiction is dead-on, capturing both the horrible waiting and the timelessness of such moments, as well as the utter exhaustion. And, because of that first melodramatic twist, this is also the scene where everything (we are led to believe) is finally revealed. As family secrets leak out slowly, Charlie confesses the terrible (if unlikely) truth to May and, thus, frees his mother to die. The result is what the reader could have anticipated roughly 180 pages before: “I felt giddy. I realized a weight had been lifted,” says Charlie. “Somehow my horror and mortification had dissipated, for good.”

This, at least, is no surprise.

Once his mother is gone, and the secret is revealed, Charlie’s house of cards collapses, releasing the no-longer-young man to make more clear-eyed decisions about his future. LeCraw throws in a few more curveballs, including one that parallels the original twist in a rather too-neat way and gives Charlie a particularly appealing option. Whether readers will root for him at this point or will have given up after the ham-handed emotional manipulation is an open question. As with so much in this book, it depends on how connected we feel to Charlie, May, and Nicky.

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Clea Simon is the author of 17 mysteries. She can be reached at cleasimon.com.