Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer

From the back of the book: From the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, a sweeping, masterful new novel that explores the secrets and desires, the remnant wounds and saving graces of one California family, over the course of five decades.

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.

I remember reading Ann Packer's book The Dive From Clausen's Pier when it was first released and being blown away by how Packer wrote and developed characters. I've been pretty ruthless with my collection of books over the years, giving them away or taking them to the used bookstore for credit, but The Dive From Clausen's Pier is one that I've hung on to. Suffice to say, I had high expectations for The Children's Crusade

I've been mulling it over now for a couple of months, trying to put words to how I feel about this book, and I guess what it comes down to is this--I think Ann Packer is a master of characters. She writes them well, she develops them well, I always enjoy reading about them, and always find them to be genuine (though not always likable). However, where this book differed from Clausen's Pier was that in this case, I was completely ambivalent about the outcome of the central plot line that the characters were engaged in. I'm not sure whether Packer intended for the book to be solely character driven or whether Clausen's Pier was clouding my expectations, but The Children's Crusade was largely different than what I expected or hoped for in this way. 

So, it wasn't what I was expecting, but that's not to say that I disliked it. I think that once I adjusted my expectations and tuned into the fact that The Children's Crusade was really a character study, I enjoyed it a lot. I liked having a glimpse into each character's perspective on both the past and the present. I do wish that we heard more from Penny herself, rather than everyone else's perspective ON Penny though, and I wish that the family had been brought together to tell essentially this same story under a different set of circumstances.  

Overall, I think that if you like character driven novels, you'll probably enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you're interested in reading it because you loved Clausen's Pier, it may not be exactly hoping for. Either way, I vote that you add it to the nightstand stack. 

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