book review: The Half Brother

half brother

The Half Brother By Holly LeCraw.
Doubleday| February 2015.|272 pages |$25.95| ISBN: 978-0-385-53195-5

Rating: ***/5*

Harvard graduate and former Atlanta resident Charlie Garrett takes a position as English teacher at Abbott School. A few years into teaching, Charlie falls for the chaplain’s daughter, May Bankhead, a former student. When he discovers a shocking secret Charlie ends the affair and breaks her 20-year-old heart. “I saw that if I told May I would become a victim, like her, of this stomach-churning fate. But what if I were the villain instead. Then the villainy would be the consolation.” May moves away from him and the school, teaching down south. A decade later, May returns to teach French and Charlie’s half-brother Nick arrives to teach math. Charlie introduces Nick to May and encourages it when they start dating.

The Half Brother contains all elements of a Gothic novel—including the main southerner protagonists– set at a Massachusetts prep school. May admits at one point that she’s in love with both brothers. Old son Charlie traveled a safe path from Harvard to teacher. He’s rather comfortable residing in an old fix-up house in this small town surrounding the private school. Nick has always been described as the “golden boy” with model looks and winning southern charm. He attracts both men and women and lives a life fueled by wanderlust. After college he volunteers in Haiti then Afghanistan until an IED attack sends him home. Nick and Charlie’s mother convinces Charlie to get Nick up to Abbott, figuring he will be safe and never be hurt again. Not so easy for the sensitive son of an alcoholic father. On the wealthy alcoholic stepfather: “He was such a gentle drunk, never ugly or belligerent; he would just gradually disappear, over the course of an evening, the smile on his face delicate as paper, and half an hour, an hour after he slid away you’d finally notice he was gone.”

Despite the seemingly predictability—teacher falls for (former) student among the copse of trees, rolling lawns and brick buildings of a private school—author Holly LeCraw kept me reading when I questioned why. It’s not her first foray into family secrets and affairs. Her page-turning debut The Swimming Pool revolved around similar themes. She creates layered intriguing characters and writes with eloquent phrasing. She describes the school campus thus: “A month later Nicky was back home and I walked up the hill to the headmaster’s house, to the Labor Day tea, and I walked under the arbor, petals of the late roses falling like confetti, and got a gin and tonic and mingled in the seersucker and the summer dresses and the civilized glow, all of us held there in the garden within the old, low piled-stone walls.” I was curious to see how everything would unfold. Once Nick and Charlie’s ailing mother arrives for a visit and takes a turn it grows quite compelling as family secrets emerge and family bonds get tested.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Doubleday.

Holly LeCraw will be reading at Brookline Booksmith on March 31

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purchase at Amazon: The Half Brother: A Novel

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