Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book Review: Fragile Beasts, by Tawni O'Dell

Fragile Beasts
by Tawni O'Dell
Shaye Areheart Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group
399 pages

I wasn't sure what to expect from Fragile Beasts.  I picked it up because of its Pennsylvania coal country setting and author Tawni O'Dell being a native of the state, not because of any strong draw to the storyline nor any familiarity with her other works. 

And almost immediately, I was drawn into this novel so deeply that I didn't want to put it down.  (That didn't quite last, though.)

Fragile Beasts is a character-driven novel about two brothers, Kyle and Klint, reeling in the aftermath of their father's death as a result of a drunk driving accident (his fault).  The boys' mother returns to Pennsylvania from Arizona, where she moved several years before when she left the boys and took their younger sister Krystal with her.  As quickly as the mother announces her intentions to bring the reluctant boys back to Arizona with her (a prospect nobody is thrilled with), one of the town's wealthiest and somewhat reclusive citizens (Candace Jack) agrees to her niece's idea that Kyle and Klint can move into her mansion. 

It's told from the perspective of several characters - Kyle, Candace, and Luis, who has worked for Candace for years as her personal chef and who is also intertwined with her secretive past in Spain.  You see, in the 1950s, Candace was the lover of famed bullfighter Manuel Obrador.  After Manuel's death (not a spoiler, as this comes within the first few pages of the novel), Candace closes herself off to the possibility of caring for anyone else again - while spending a sizeable portion of her family's wealth to acquire the bull that killed Manuel, a bull whose descendants live on at her Pennsylvania coal-country estate. 

When reading Fragile Beasts, it's helpful to concentrate on the characters themselves.  Tawni O'Dell does a remarkable job of putting the reader into the hearts and minds of Candace, Kyle, and Luis and through them, we learn about Manuel Obrador and his effect on those in his life.  Ultimately, this is a story about how our pasts and present can become intertwined in ways we might not expect.  As I said, it's a very character-driven novel and the sympathy that O'Dell generates for her characters is well-done.  You do care about them.

However ... the question for the reader, then, is whether the well-written characters are enough for the reader to set aside some potential skepticism about some of the thin plotlines.  In my opinion ... I'm not sure.  I think it's a matter of reader preference, actually. While I was engrossed in the story from the beginning - the first half had me absolutely riveted to every page and I didn't want to put it down - O'Dell began to lose me a bit in the second half.

Part of this might have been because there are several various storylines happening at the same time here and because of that, I didn't feel they were as well-developed as they could have been if there were less of them.  And, there is a particular storyline that just felt gratuitous.  I had a sense that we might be going in this direction, but the issue is one that deserves more focus than it was given.  Again, just my opinion, and maybe this would have been remedied if it had been introduced more towards the sluggish middle of the novel when I was still engaged with the characters but was looking for something to happen.

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