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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 32.
- Review Date: 2010-02-08
- Reviewer: Staff
In her fourth outing, novelist O’Dell returns to Pennsylvania coal country for more dysfunctional family drama. When teenage brothers Klint and Kyle, having already been abandoned by their mother, are left orphaned by the death of their father, they’re unexpectedly taken in by an elderly, “filthy rich” recluse named Candace Jack, known for her family’s mining company, J&P Coal. Taking in the two working-class kids, Candace is reminded of her own emotional wounds (a heart long-broken by the violent death of her bullfighter fiancé), and the damaged trio grope their way toward healing amid heated cultural and generational clashes. Under Candace’s roof, likable and inquisitive Kyle begins to develop artistic skills, while sullen baseball prodigy Klint immerses himself even further in sports. When Kyle and Klint’s cold-hearted mom appears, looking to get at Candace’s money, a series of near-tragic events and terrible revelations ensue. O’Dell can overdo the sentiment, but she’s a pro at capturing dialogue, and some characters’ wisecracks are laugh-out-loud funny. Though predictable, this gritty novel is a memorable read. (Mar.)
Recovering from tragedy
Kyle and Klint Hayes are a freshman and junior in the high school of a slowly dying western Pennsylvania coal town. Tawni O’Dell’s latest novel set in that hardscrabble part of the country, Fragile Beasts, opens just after the sudden death of the boys’ father in a truck accident—leaving them virtually orphans, since their self-centered mother, lacking a single maternal skill, took their younger sister and moved to Arizona three years ago with “some guy we’d never heard of.”
Kyle is the quiet, thoughtful, studious brother—and artistic, a fact he tries vainly to hide from the school’s roughneck element, which considers “artistic” another word for “gay.” And Kyle is decidedly not gay—he spends much of his time dreaming about Shelby Jack, the daughter of Cam Jack, who owns the J & P coal mine where Kyle and Klint’s dad worked before an injury landed him in a dead-end janitorial job.
Klint, the gifted baseball star hoping to ride out of town on a scholarship, has little interest in much of anything except baseball for the last several years, and is devastated by his father’s death.
At this point O’Dell introduces her third central character—Candace Jack, Cam Jack’s aunt. She’s filthy rich, “old and mean” and “hates just about everybody,” according to most townsfolk. She has a sad, little-known history involving a love affair 47 years earlier with a Spanish bullfighter who died before her eyes—a tragedy from which she’s never really recovered.
Somehow O’Dell is able to meld these two unlikely plots into a coherent and compelling novel, as Candy Jack’s ancient loss and the loneliness and rejection experienced by Kyle and Klint seem to come together to benefit and enrich each of them. With acute perception and just a touch of humor, O’Dell touches on issues as disparate as the loss of love, unabashed greed, competitive sports and the complexities of aging. Candy Jack is now 77, and “neither impressed by [her] accomplishments nor hampered by regrets.” And after meeting Kyle and Klint’s mother, she believes keeping them away from her was “a noble cause tantamount to stepping between two baby seals and a club-wielding Canadian.”
O’Dell has once again delivered a marvelous cast of characters and a riveting plot that sweeps the reader along as secrets are revealed, and old wrongs set right.
Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.