How the past influences what follows, and how self-understanding inspires broader comprehension of all things: These are the themes of this gently philosophical family chronicle, the first volume of a planned trilogy.
Klein, a veteran novelist and co-author of the whimsical bestseller Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar (2008), channels his inner Thornton Wilder in this piecemeal history of a New England village (Grandville, Mass.), which combines the family-album features of Our Town with the inconclusive fatalism of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Its central narrative focuses on Wendell deVries, heir to and proprietor of the Phoenix, a former vaudeville theater that’s now the local movie house, and on long-divorced Wendell’s family. His unmarried daughter Franny, who spearheads Grandville’s community theater group and publicly protests the Iraq War, carries burdens she’ll be unable to keep bearing. Other plots embrace Franny’s beautiful, headstrong teenaged daughter Lila; a guidance counselor obsessed with Harvard and with managing his daughter’s future; miscellaneous do-gooders and miscreants, culture vultures and over- and underachievers; and—in a slowly developing subplot—a Colombian youth, Hector Mondragon, whose flight from his country’s dangers and his own misdeeds will lead him eventually to Grandville, and a deeply ironic fulfillment of his American dream. The novel is both enriched and flawed by numerous historical flashbacks which preach the inevitability of the past’s shaping power, and there are far too many such episodes in the book’s final 100 pages. Furthermore, Wendell’s hangdog decency, which includes a genuine yearning to discover the truth about his family’s occluded ethnicity, is far too reminiscent of Richard Russo’s rumpled antiheroes—just as Klein’s plot carries excessive reminders of Empire Falls.
Absorbing, nevertheless, though the novel never lives up to the promise of its vivid early chapters and enormously appealing characters.