A panoramic novel tracing generations of the Gannon family illuminates the aftershocks of war in the 20th century.
When Michael Gannon, war hero and devout Catholic, husband to Barbara, father to Mike Jr., Luke, Francis, Patty Ann, and soon-to-be Sissy, dies on the front lawn of their yellow house in California, Barbara must learn to manage their lives without him. Predominately following Barbara and Francis, the novel ranges from 1962 to 2015; chapters sometimes jump months, other times decades, to offer snapshots of the family’s progression. Barbara is remarried to Ronnie, a kind and loving but sexually evasive man. To save him from the draft, Patty Ann marries her high school boyfriend, a ne’er-do-well drug dealer, who leaves her with three children. When the situation becomes overwhelming, Barbara and Ronnie become legal guardians to Kennedy, Patty Ann’s eldest son, and care for him even after her third marriage reinstates some stability. After the horrors of losing his father and then his lifelong best friend, Eugene, who killed himself, Francis is relentlessly on the run. But a transformative experience on a boat halfway between Ireland and Scotland leads him to write a hit song and retire, with his fragile wife, to a maple syrup farm in the hills between Massachusetts and Vermont. Characters are occasionally lost in the expanse—Patty Ann’s other children are merely mentioned; we learn in passing that after a military stint, Mike Jr. ends up a doctor in Texas; Sissy has disappeared to Africa. Most important to Korkeakivi (An Unexpected Guest, 2012), it seems, is to communicate the damage war causes, not just physically and not just to soldiers, but emotionally and to families and communities everywhere. This damage underpins the novel; Luke is killed training for Vietnam, and the men who do return from battle do so with injuries that ultimately kill them—Michael’s weakened heart, Eugene’s psychological trauma. Everything works out a little too beautifully—despite the war-induced deaths—tipping the novel somewhat toward the maudlin, its moral toward platitudinous: “The thing about life is it is so damned confusing. Such a web, each piece of it dependent on something else, something that can be as tiny as a smile from a stranger or as huge as heart disease. The good all tangled up with the bad.” Even so, the effortless prose and vining plot make for a winsome tale of kinship and growth.
Endearing characters carry a sinuous story of family bonds.