Book Reviews · 07/06/2015

The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw


Doubleday, 2015

With so much ink spilled over the dramas of boarding schools, it’s hard to imagine a story set at a picturesque institution in rural Massachusetts could possibly feel fresh. And yet, in The Half Brother, Holly LeCraw has created an insular world that explores relationships with people and places in an exciting, insightful way. Her characters are outsiders in the ultimate insider setting, feeling out the boundaries of personal limitations within the confines of stifling proximity.

Charlie Garrett is a Southerner who came north to make his own way, a son of Georgia turned English teacher at the prestigious Abbott School. He’s drawn to the enigmatic daughter of the school’s chaplain, a beautiful student named May. When she returns after graduation to help her ailing father, she and Charlie find themselves in a whirlwind affair. But a secret from Charlie’s past suddenly surfaces and forces him to end their relationship. The subsequent drama hinges largely on Charlie’s unresolved tensions with May, or with those around him filtered through May as a conduit.

Abbott and the small town of Abbottsford is idyllic in the way any boarding school in New England would be. The way people talk to each other, the architecture, the way the students and the faculty relate to one another—it’s all timeless in a nostalgic kind of way. The town is described numerous times as perfect, a paradise, the sort of place one would want to escape to and ideal for the bookish Charlie. The insularity of the environment makes it an easy home, where Charlie can bond quickly and deeply with the small social circle he’s put into as a new teacher. The tight sense of community that lends an often forced positivity to a place like Abbottsford is brought to life by Divya and Winn Lowell, the center of Charlie’s social world:

Since school started, they’d been having me over for dinner nearly every week. Sometimes there were other Abbott people there, and sometimes it was just me. I was pretty sure they felt sorry for me, but I didn’t care. ‘There’s not much to do in a tiny town like this,’ Divya said, shrugging, and then she would put me to work with some simple task I couldn’t screw up, like draining pasta.

The relationships in Charlie’s life are highly fraught, be it his delicate and distant relationship with his mother or the mysterious sense of something missing in his relationship with May’s father. Charlie’s half-brother Nick is both a grounding force pulling him back to Georgia, even as the lure of a life apart draws him away, and a source of self-critique. He’s not there for Nick as he wants to be, and sees in his brother qualities he wishes he saw in himself. Charlie’s admiration of Nick and sense of self in relation to him comes more sharply into focus when Nick and May begin a relationship of their own, with Charlie’s blessing.

The dichotomy between outsider and insider status plays out uniquely in The Half Brother, with intersecting groups and shifting ideas of what it means to belong. Abbott School has an even mix of outsiders who came from elsewhere, both to join the faculty and as students. The inherent nature of small town cliques breeds inclusivity based on knowledge—who knows, who doesn’t, who is keeping secrets from whom. On top of this, Charlie grapples with the intersecting circles within his own family: the stepfather he lost, the half-brother he adores and envies, a past he seeks physical distance from even as that distance forces him to reflect on the world he is trying to escape. What it means to belong in any one setting is muddied by conflicting roles, relationships, and knowledge of shared histories. The tension that rests between the said and unsaid, and in the moment before the unknown becomes known, is electrifying, like when Charlie finally tells his mother he has fallen in love:

On the other end of the line my mother was quiet and then she said, “Preston is dying?”
Yes, melanoma, spread to the brain. Terrible, too young. I was still flying. Away from that house, my happiness was unfettered. But there was something—at the edge—“Why did you say ‘Preston’ like that?”
“You’re in love with Preston’s daughter?”
“Why do you know his name?”
“Preston has a daughter?”

The prose rolls along without being weighed down by the darker turns the plot often takes, a true feat given the taboos LeCraw breaks with her characters. Incest, statutory temptation, and a thin veneer of willful cruelty threaten to topple the Norman Rockwellian impression of Abbott. LeCraw flies away from the edge of decency in the nick of time, taking her characters with her. She doesn’t avoid them or sugarcoat them, but doesn’t revel in the shock value these breaches of convention can lend to an otherwise picturesque story. Just like life, the book goes on in the wake of crushing revelations.

The volatility of secrets on all sides culminates in a twist ending that seems more like an easy out than a resolution. But the questions of the past and the knowledge we think we have about those we are closest to add a tension that verges on dangerous, a lurking darkness nipping at the beautiful and quiet world of Abbott School.

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Holly LeCraw was born and raised in Atlanta. She now lives outside Boston with her husband, journalist Peter Howe, and their three children. Her previous novel, The Swimming Pool, was published by Anchor Books in 2011. Her short fiction has appeared in various publications and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the News & Politics Editor at Literally, Darling, and a contributor at Hello Giggles and WildSpice Magazine. She has written reviews for The Intentional, PANK, and Bust. Her writing has also appeared at Huffington Post, xoJane, NO TOFU, and A Practical Wedding. You can also find her on Medium. www.brideyheing.com