A suburban boy tries to make the leap to manhood and fails miserably.
One might expect a little evolution from this sophomore novel by Dolnick (Zoology, 2007). Unfortunately, the author rolls out the same humdrum anxiety and juvenile yearning that characterized his debut novel. Worse, this new story has an even more generic setting and a plethora of tired, clichéd plot points that make it a drag to complete. The neighborhood boy of the moment is Jacob Vine, a middle child struggling with identity and family in the cheerlessness of his Maryland township. His biggest struggle is his ongoing hatred of older brother Will, a smart and popular student who drowns Jacob in his shadow. Barely given pause is the cancer fight faced by Jacob’s mother, and the terrible anguish of his ghostly father. Mostly, this parental absence seems to be an excuse for the endlessly navel-gazing Jacob to chat up Emily, the girl on which he dotes. “Over already,” Dolnick writes of the funeral. “Songs, stories, death like a dimmer switch in the sky.” While Jacob is terribly self-involved, Emily is a poorly drawn cipher, flip-flopping between cold aloofness and teenage lust with abandon. She’s painted with that patina of desire that only pubescent boys can muster, but a lack of distinguishable character washes her out. The book follows their relationship, which ends with a hackneyed and regrettably ordinary plot device. But Dolnick clearly isn’t afraid to trot out plenty of other chestnuts. From teen pregnancy to sibling rivalry, academic disappointment to first heartbreak, the novel’s touchstones are all too familiar. In fact, they’re so very unexceptional that the novel doesn’t give readers any purchase on which to hang affection or even sympathy for the coddled boy at the center of the story. At one point, Jacob has a mild revelation about the interconnectivity of his life’s events, but it’s lost as quickly as it arrives.
An immature, unfocused story about a young man who’s much the same.