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Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio$39.99
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Bill Blair finds the land by accident, three wooded acres in a rustic community south of San Francisco. The year is 1954, long before anyone will call this area Silicon Valley. Struck by a vision of the family he has yet to create, Bill buys the property on a whim. In Penny Greenway he finds a suitable wife, a woman whose yearning attitude toward life seems compelling and answerable, and they marry and have four children. Yet Penny is a mercurial housewife, at a time when women chafed at the conventions imposed on them. She finds salvation in art, but the cost is high.
Thirty years later, the three oldest Blair children, adults now and still living near the family home, are disrupted by the return of the youngest, whose sudden presence and all-too-familiar troubles force a reckoning with who they are, separately and together, and set off a struggle over the family's future. One by one, the siblings take turns telling the story--Robert, a doctor like their father; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; Ryan, a schoolteacher; and James, the malcontent, the problem child, the only one who hasn't settled down--their narratives interwoven with portraits of the family at crucial points in their history.
Reviewers have praised Ann Packer's "brilliant ear for character" (The New York Times Book Review), her "naturalist's vigilance for detail, so that her characters seem observed rather than invented" (The New Yorker), and the "utterly lifelike quality of her book's everyday detail" (The New York Times). Her talents are on dazzling display in The Children's Crusade, an extraordinary study in character, a rare and wise examination of the legacy of early life on adult children attempting to create successful families and identities of their own. This is Ann Packer's most deeply affecting book yet.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-02-02
- Reviewer: Staff
Packer (The Dive from Clausen’s Pier) begins her well-crafted family saga from the ground up with pediatrician Bill Blair’s Portola Valley, Calif., land purchased in 1954. Bill marries Penny, a young woman eager to have children—but she didn’t count on four kids, which forges her identity as a mother instead of the artist she yearns to become. Her children are intuitively aware of her distance and poignantly try to find a way to bring her closer to them. Their stories unfold through distinctive narrative styles, including both first- and third-person sections, suited to the characters: stressed internist Robert, brilliant psychiatrist Rebecca, dreamy teacher Ryan, and reckless drifter James. The multiple perspectives help render the complicated family fully. Of the siblings, James is the only one to relocate, and he periodically returns over the years. The impetus for his current visit stems from an idea that shocks his siblings, prompting them to examine their childhood to find the answer. “Or rather, I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of the filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times,” Rebecca thinks. Packer is an accomplished storyteller whose characters are as real as those you might find around your dinner table. Readers will be taken with this vibrant novel. (Apr.)
A family's quiet insight
Pity the quiet novel about family life. In an era when novelists are taught to write killer openings and the line between literary and genre fiction is increasingly blurred, it seems as if there’s no room for a contemplative novel that finds drama in quiet moments. Fortunately, such books are still being published, and one of the better examples is The Children’s Crusade, the new novel by Ann Packer (The Dive from Clausen’s Pier).
The story begins in the 1950s, when Michigan native Bill Blair completes a residency in pediatrics and buys 3.1 acres of undeveloped land in what will eventually be known as Silicon Valley. He marries Penny Greenway, who, at first, takes great pride in her role as a housewife. But well before their four children are adults, Penny has converted the shed on the property into an art studio and withdrawn from the rest of the family. When 38-year-old James, the youngest child, returns to California in 2006 from his current home in Eugene, Oregon, he tells his older siblings—Robert, a physician; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; and Ryan, a teacher—all of whom still live on or near the homestead, that he needs money and wants to sell the house. The novel alternates between past and present and among each sibling’s perspective to create a compelling portrait of complicated family relationships.
Packer’s strength is her ability to see meaning in small gestures, to recognize that “Are you okay?” is, in many marriages, a loaded question. Her descriptions are beautiful; she imagines the sky as being the color of a glass of water into which one has dipped a calligraphy pen. Some scenes go on too long, but the book is always perceptive about love and relationships and treats its nuanced characters with sympathy. When Robert’s boy Sammy is born, Bill gives his son advice: “Enjoy him.” The Children’s Crusade is about, among other topics, whether we enjoy our children, even when they grow up into adults whose company we might not otherwise accept. That’s the kind of insight you get in a quiet novel.