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Colt believes he would be a different man had he not grown up in a family of four brothers. He movingly recounts the adoration, envy, affection, resentment, and compassion in their shifting relationships from childhood through middle age, also rendering a volatile decade in American life: the 1960s. Some of the Colt men now have children; all have found their own paths; all now consider their brothers to be their closest friends.
In alternate chapters, Colt parallels his quest to understand how his own brothers shaped his life with an examination of the rich and complex relationships between iconic brothers in history. He explores how Edwin Booth grew up to become the greatest actor on the nineteenth-century American stage while his younger brother John grew up to assassinate a president. How Will Kellogg worked for his overbearing older brother John Harvey as a subservient yes-man for two decades until he finally broke free and launched the cereal empire that outlasted all his brother's enterprises. How Vincent van Gogh would never have survived without the financial and emotional support of his younger brother, Theo, in a claustrophobic relationship that both defined and confined them. How Henry David Thoreau's life was shadowed by the early death of his older brother, John, who haunted and inspired his writing. And how the Marx Brothers collaborated on the screen but competed offstage for women, money, and fame.
Illuminating and affecting, this book will be revelatory for any parent of sons, any sibling, anyone curious about how a man's life can be molded by his brothers. Colt's magnificent book is a testament to the abiding power of fraternal love.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-10-08
- Reviewer: Staff
The brotherly counterpoint between fierce rivalry and stalwart affection is teased out in this absorbing meditation on family dynamics. New York Times notable author Colt (The Big House) presents vivid accounts of famous fraternal sagas, including the tragic path of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, the mutual martyrdoms of the tormented Vincent Van Gogh and his tenderly supportive brother Theo, and the endless, anarchic scrimmage among the Marx Brothers. Colt is a superb biographical sketch artist who incorporates a wealth of vibrant, entertaining detail and subtle analysis into these illuminating portraits; as his subjects squabble over parental attention, dinner-table scraps, women, and status, their relationships are a maelstrom of tyrannizing, thwarting, nagging, and suing mixed with admiring, teaching, sustaining, and protecting. Alternate chapters recount the author’s quiet but intense memories of growing up in the middle of three brothers—his depiction of postwar suburban kid culture is piquant and evocative—torn between hero worship, jealousy, resentful infighting, and a sense of loss as the brothers go their separate ways. No one writes better than Colt about families and the strange alchemy that binds them, and the way siblings make each other what they are even as they become distinct, even estranged, personalities. (Nov. 27)
Sibling rivalry and revelations
Ever since Cain and Abel, societies have been shaken and shaped by brothers who competed with, supported or blithely ignored one another. George Howe Colt, the second-born of four brothers, has plowed through history to describe these powerful and perplexing sibling dynamics. He does so within the framework of recounting the ups and downs of fraternal relationships that prevailed inside his own family.
While Colt’s personal accounts of growing up and finding his place in the pecking order are the most vivid and psychologically revealing, he interlaces them with extended close-ups of brothers Edwin and John Wilkes Booth; John and Will Kellogg (of Kellogg cereal fame); Vincent and Theo van Gogh; John and Henry David Thoreau; and Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo Marx. He found that brothers tend to heighten certain qualities in each other—good and bad—that might have lain dormant if not for that incessant grind of proximity.
George’s older brother, Harry, first served the role of hero. Then, when they were at Harvard together, Harry’s seriousness as a student became a living reproach to George’s hard-drinking, devil-may-care ways. More readjustments lay ahead as younger brothers Ned and Mark came along to fight for their own identities. As the author tells it, harmony now reigns among the Colts. Harry became a doctor, George a writer (whose 2004 book The Big House was also a family history), Ned a reporter for NBC and Mark, “the least competitive of the brothers,” a recycling coordinator at a school for the blind.
Brothers is meant to charm with its stories, not to be a template for predicting behavior. “Over the past three decades,” Colt writes, “studies of intelligence, personality, interests, attitudes, and psychopathology have concluded that siblings raised in the same family are, in fact, almost as different from each other as unrelated people raised in separate families.” Maybe so, but at least they’re around when you need someone to play catch with.