This sharply realistic debut novel traces the lives of Jack and Connor Reed, brothers growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
The two are orphaned when Jack is a fledgling lawyer of 25 and Connor a shy, likable boy of 15. This narrative sticks relentlessly to the issues of private life—Jack’s relationships with women, Connor’s near-fatal leukemia, both men’s marriages and children—and follows their careers only insofar as they contribute to stress, vanity or economic stability. Although everyone involved is depicted as being exceptionally bright, no one seems to have a stray thought to spare for art, science, religion, philosophy or the public good. An unwavering focus on daily life, of the dog-to-the-vet, trip-to-the-convenience-store variety, makes the characters’ lives seem real, but also pedestrian. The story’s merit is neither on the level of events, which are relatively unexciting, nor of language. Goldhagen's style is merely a means to an end, clear, serviceable and occasionally cliché-ridden, as when she describes Jack’s second wife as having “dewy skin and eyes blue and faceted as cut sapphires.” When she strays from familiar locutions, however, the results are hardly more successful, as when one character reflects, “There were annoying hangnails of boredom itching to be chewed.” Where the author excels is at the level of moral choice: Her characters struggle toward a sense of what it means to be an adult, one who takes responsibility for another's well-being. When Connor is diagnosed with leukemia, for example, his relationship with his wife Laine becomes mired in conflict. Nevertheless, when Connor insists on taking a shower despite his doctor’s warning that the heat could cause him to faint, Laine sits protectively “watching him through the beveled glass.”
The pervasive emphasis on kindness and responsibility is what gives this book its value.