Tag Archives: guilt

Review: Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian (5/5). A family’s worst nightmare is having a vegan in the house

28 Apr

This is yet another example of a book I never would have picked up if it weren’t for my book club. I’m so glad to have these experiences because they’ve let me to some amazing books.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian

A hunting riffle goes off on the last night of July in a small New Hampshire town and changes the lives of the Seton family. The bullet strikes Spencer McCullough in the shoulder, permanently injuring him for life and rendering his limb useless. The shooter is none other than his twelve-year-old daughter, Charlotte who thought she was shooting the deer that tore up the family garden. The gun belongs to Spencer’s brother-in-law and Charlotte’s uncle, John Seton. The following pages unravel the story of how the daughter of an animal rights activist came to be shooting at deer and who is really to blame in this lamentable but very real family tragedy.

I was very reluctant to dive into this book. The reviews I saw on Goodreads were polarized and the plot seemed like it would be a little winding and wordy. I realized quickly that I didn’t care how wordy the story was because I loved every single word. I thought the sentences were beautiful and the characters were dynamic and deep and I just feel in love with it. I started reading faster and faster to see how the family would resolve their differences before the book ended and I’m really happy with how it happened.

Part of what made this book so awesome for me were the well-developed characters. Charlotte reminded me of all the girls in middle school that drove me crazy and I could picture her in my head. I sympathized with Catherine’s struggles to make herself happy midst her husband’s obsessive veganism. I cheered for John to forgive himself as a task he put off had disastrous consequences and someone had to be blamed. Everyone was painted so vividly that I was cheering for them all and for their problems to be resolved so that the family could be reunited.

Spencer was my favorite character. I hated him and loved him at different points in the book. At the beginning, I really hated him because I felt he was putting his family aside for his career. When I see people at work who I think are doing this, I get mad. I think as Americans we work too hard and that it hurts our family lives and might be a contributing factor to the high divorce rate. I make a point to take time off for my husband and spending time with him.

After his accident, I felt bad for Spencer. My mom had a very traumatic injury when I was young and I loved how real his struggle to function was. When you’re severely injured, the stupidest things are staggeringly difficult. Putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, opening a jar, and simply taking a shower require monstrous effort and help. I saw my mom go through this and went through it myself after a hip surgery while in college.

Once Spencer started realizing what he had done to his family with his actions before the accident, I liked him. And boy did I really like him. I loved that he got his priorities sorted out and that he was able to do it in such a dramatic way. He almost ruined his career for the sake of his family but he knew he needed to do that. I loved Charlotte’s devotion to her father at the end and her love for him really helped me love him, too.

As I said, I saw my mother go through a traumatic accident and because of this I could relate to Charlotte. I was about her age (12/13) when it happened and as a child, you want to help but feel very helpless. There was only so much you can do when you’re small, don’t have money, and can’t drive, but you do as much as you can. Charlotte couldn’t imagine leaving her father to fend for himself while he was still figuring out the world and I can completely understand that.

I related to Catherine on a different level. I loved that she had to hide that she ate meat. It’s something that seems so normal to most people and yet in her family, it was taboo. I can’t think of a specific example, but I think we all have something that we wouldn’t mind flaunting in front of friends but hide from our families (or vice versa). I adored her struggle.

I’m not sure I had a ‘favorite’ part of the book. There were parts I thought were so real to life they scared me, but I’m not sure if they were my favorites. I liked the scene where Charlotte and Willow are at the bonfire. I also really liked how Spencer recalls working at the lobster restaurant. My ‘favorite ‘ parts of this book were lines and scenes more than plot points.

I didn’t like the part of the book immediately following the accident. I hated how John blamed himself so much and how Spencer was being moody and angry. It was realistic, but so frustrating. I understand that people involved in such a traumatic event wouldn’t want to start talking to each other right away, but wading through their emotional baggage was tolling.

The most obvious topic to discuss with this book is guilt. Many of the characters feel guilty for something and are suffering from the effects of that guilt in the book. Charlotte feels guilty for shooting her father. Willow feels guilt for not telling anyone about the drugs and alcohol surrounding the accident. John feels guilty for not taking better care of his rifle. Catherine feels guilty for eating meat and wanting to leave her injured husband. Spencer’s guilt is for his dependence on his family. All of the characters have an internal struggle to deal with this weight and eventually ‘get off their chests’ what’s holding them back.

I loved the roll Nan played in the book. She was the life force of the family in the exposition; getting them to move and interact and enjoy each other. After the accident, she felt lost and unneeded while she was still in New Hampshire. It was only when she returned to New York that the families could start to communicate again, using her as a means of communication. When they had talked to each other enough and resolved their problems, Nan’s role in the book was done and she could leave gracefully. I loved this author’s technique.

Writer’s Takeaway: I’m not normally a reader who enjoys character studies but I adored this book. I think how Bohjalian combined his character study with a very action-packed event helped that. Even in books that talk about human nature, there still needs to be some motion.

I also loved his use of language. Everything was so well described and the pictures the book created were very real. The only complaint I have about the book is that in the sections that followed the girls, Charlotte and Willow, the language was equally as descriptive and I felt that the girls wouldn’t use such eloquent words. I’ve never heard a 13-year-old say ‘placid’ before and it struck me as odd.

A completely thrilling book that I adored. I can’t wait to meet Bohjalian on the 30th! A full 5 out of 5 stars.

This book covers ‘New Hampshire’ for my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

Related Posts:
Before You Know Kindness Book Review | Book Club Queen
Before You Know Kindness – Book Review | Caribousmom
Recent Read: Before You Know Kindness | Grey Cat Blog


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Book Review: Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

4 Dec

A book review has been long overdue! I’m about to jump back into my book club books, but before I do I have this book, a suggestion from a friend that I found on sale at the Library.

Cover from Goodreads.com

Cover from Goodreads.com

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

This book was recommended to me by my friend MBK. She told me it was her favorite book of all time. As a fellow John Irving fan, I had faith and picked it up off of the $1 shelf at the library. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Irving and I can see the connection.

Stones from the River tells the story of Trudi Montag, a dwarf woman living in the small town of Burgdorf, Germany. She comes of age during the Nazi rule so that on top of figuring out what clothes to wear and which boys she likes, Trudi is also figuring out the moral minefield of Nazi Germany.

Trudi’s mother had mental health problems that led to her early death so that Trudi is raised by her silent and beloved father, Leo. The two run the pay-library in a town small enough that everyone knows each other and Trudi makes a point to know everything about everyone. As the Nazi party’s power grows, Trudi is struck by its brutality and confused by the hatred for Jews that it totes. She and her father struggle to stay out of the party while supporting it enough to remain alive.

It took me a while to get into this book. The beginning seemed really slow to me. I realize upon finishing it that the lengthy exposition was to introduce the characters whose lives were a focus of the later part of the book and to set up the feeling of a small community which was so strongly divided. I still found the first half hard to get through, but I flew through the second half.

Having a main character with a physical characteristic as strong as dwarfism made for a very memorable book.  Trudi’s unique struggles struck a very personal chord. As someone with low self-esteem, it was powerful to see someone else who struggled with this so much and felt so right in assuming no one liked her or wanted to spend time with her. Ultimately, she was very wrong. That’s very reassuring.

Most of Hegi’s messages were about love and guilt. Because of the brutality of the time, guilt came from those who had sinned and those who had to live with those sins. A soldier who goes off to war reports his mother for her lack of allegiance and the soldier’s wife loses her mother-in-law and roommate. Many of the soldiers don’t experience guilt until they come back and have to face what they’ve done in light of the opening of concentration camps.

Love is more complicated. In Hegi’s book, love tends to mean loss and that one is hurt more by those one loves when they leave. Death and leaving are common in this time period and many characters are affected by one or the other. The loss of Trudi’s mother is almost too much for her father to handle. The losses the come with the war rip the small town apart and fill up the cemetery too quickly. I can’t think of a character who came through the book unscathed.

Is there such thing as a happy ending? In the books Trudi and her father lend to the people of Burgdorf, there are heroines who find their heroes, mysteries that are solved. But in real life, the story ends differently. What started to seem like a happy ending results in heartbreak. The boys who go off to be heroes come back disgraced. Hegi’s book isn’t a story to cheer you up, its real life and it ends much as life does.

This book did remind me of John Irving and I liked that about it. The life-spaning story of Trudi allowed her to develop as a character in may dimensions. The terrible loss was also reminiscent of Irving. I wish the story had started with as much action as it ended with.

Writer’s Takeaway: As a writer, it’s always dangerous to have too many characters. A whole town-full of characters is a dangerous road to turn down. Hegi knocked the ball out of the park. Her town was full of dynamic characters with distinctive personalities who made the reader care about them. For those attempting to write a long list of characters, Hegi provides a wonderful example.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but it was difficult to get in to so I can’t justify a high rating. Three out of five stars.

Until next time, Reader, write on.