An empathetic teacher tries to help a student coping with a family tragedy in this debut literary novel.
The characters are foreign and familiar, and the story turns both inevitable and surprising. The tent poles of Brennan’s tale—which opens in 2000—are Francis Danuta, a student struggling through Christmas and his last year of high school, and Victoria Merritt, a first-year teacher facing her own problems in adjusting to her environment and profession. Francis’ father has committed suicide, an event that shocks the town. He was abusive toward Francis; the teenager’s sister, Kathy; and their mother, Isabel. Francis is trying to cope with that while balancing work, college plans, and time with his new girlfriend, Faye Sunami. Similarly, Victoria is on a path of self-discovery, learning how to interact with students and a town where some of the residents are Stone Age thinkers and developing a relationship with Max, the school janitor. Victoria’s own father committed suicide when she was young, so she reaches out to Francis. She encourages him to work on the school play she has been forced to direct, a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Victoria has been chastised by the principal for casting a black student in one of the lead roles. Brennan has masterfully planted seeds throughout the tale that bloom in unexpected places—how Victoria and Max come together, a confrontation with racists on the play’s opening night, and especially where both main characters wind up by the final page. And the prose is remarkably concise. When Faye’s father is described as “a dark and limping hairy cuss with tattoos up the side of his face and a holstered ax on his belt,” readers find out most, but not all, of what they need to know about him. The pacing is also distinctive. Brennan writes chapters in short bursts, sometimes taking up only a few moments in the story. This style will likely keep readers off balance but should also stoke their curiosity about what lies ahead for Francis and Victoria.
A fine school tale, well-plotted and rendered with care, for readers who like complicated characters and crisp prose.