My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I love stories about dysfunctional families, and this was one of the best I’ve read in a long time.
Fragile Beasts opens with the narration of Kyle Hayes, a 15 year-old boy who admires his older brother, Pennsylvania high-school baseball standout Klint, as well as his younger sister, Krystal. Kyle’s attended every one of Klint’s baseball games, and has drawn countless pictures for Krystal. Problem is, Krystal now lives far away in Arizona after their mom scooped her up and left their father for another man. An even bigger problem is that their father just inadvertently killed himself in a drunk-driving accident.
It’s quite a dilemma about where Kyle and Klint will live after their father’s funeral. Their dad was a blue-collar drunk, but he looks like “Parent of the Year” compared to their cruel, cold mother. Enter the wealthy, childless Candace Jack. Miss Jack agrees to take in the boys, mostly to spite her nephew (the owner of the local coal company) but also to protect the boys from their mother.
Candace Jack has an intricate history of her own, and her family rivals the Hayes for putting the fun in dysfunction. She has a Spaniard, Luis, living with her, and decorates her large home in the brilliant colors and bullfighting paintings of Spain. It turns out that Candace had loved one of Spain’s most artistic torreos, Manuel Obrador. His death in the bullfighting ring in 1959 left her bereft, and she’s never recovered. But she did bring back to Pennsylvania the bull that killed Manuel, and the bull’s grandson now lives on her estate.
I adore the character of Kyle. He’s one of the sweetest teenage boys I’ve ever met. He’s inquisitive, artistic, empathic, and kind, but he still maintains the voracious appetite and ogling of girls characteristic of his age and gender.
Klint, on the other hand, is not so sweet. He’s morose and haunted, harboring a life-threatening secret.
Tawni O’Dell is a master of metaphor. Here are some of my favorites:
“All three of the (bulls) are massive coal-black monsters with sharply pointed upturned white horns that look like they’d slide through a grown man’s chest as easily as a power drill through butter” (p. 137)
“Bert stands nearby, impeccably and elegantly groomed, holding the dog’s gaudy neon pink, fur-lined, jewel-encrusted carrier coolly at his side, looking like some homophobic screenwriter’s idea of a gay doctor who makes house calls” (p. 203)
“…time passes more slowly at the beginning and ends of our lives. As children time is thick and sweet like syrup yet we can’t wait to get older. We enter adulthood and time escapes like water through an open hand. Then it slows again in the twilight years, becoming the congealed consistency of fat skimmed off a stewed chicken, and we have nothing left but to wait for death” (p. 288)
I also loved the author’s exploration of artists, whether they be bullfighters, painters, or baseball players.
“An artist doesn’t create in order to get money, or fame, or acceptance, or love. It’s a force inside him, something he must do or his soul will shrivel up and die” (p. 142)
I’m a former college athlete and Ms. O’Dell totally nailed what happens to athletes who are depressed or suffering some sort of malaise:
“An accountant can be down in the dumps and still add up his daily figures. A teacher can be concerned about her sick mother and still assign chapters for her students to read. A truck driver can be angry at his spouse and still cover all the miles on his route. But an artist’s self is his work. If something is wrong with one, the other falls into decay. I imagine it’s the same for an athlete and his performance” (p. 152).
My only criticism is that the plot sagged a bit at the end of the second act. While I loved Candace and Luis, I didn’t find their points of view as appealing as Kyle’s.
Brilliant characterization, gripping emotions, a plot with depth and heart – this novel is a must read.
You may not have heard of Tawni O’Dell, but she’s an awesome author as far as I’m concerned. Her novel Back Roads was an Oprah pick, and here is an interesting interview with her about her path as a writer.