16 March 2015

Book Review: The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw

I've got to stop doing this to myself!  I read Holly LeCraw's novel The Half Brother on vacation last November, and it pubbed in February, and I'm only now sitting down to try reviewing it.  Now it's necessarily going to be vague, thanks to the distance of time, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed this book quite a bit, as it hit some of my literary preferences.

First up, it's a boarding school book, something that I've been enthralled with since a young age, reinforced by reading A Separate Peace and later by reading Harry Potter and Never Let Me Go. I spent my earliest childhood in a dying central Wisconsin mill town, and later in a tiny suburb in southern Mississippi.  There probably were boarding schools in Wisconsin but I was too young to be aware of them, and there were some in Mississippi, but they were mostly white-flight schools, and even if my parents had had the money to send me to one, they would never have had the inclination.

Reading about New England (or better yet, England!) boarding schools put me in a world that was impossibly exotic to my grade school self, and I've loved the setting and all of its expected memes ever since. It will probably come as no great surprise to you that my favorite movie in high school, revered above all others, was Dead Poets Society.  I, too, wanted to suck out all of the marrow of life and walk through ivy-walled courtyards, and I can't tell you how much I longed to have a quad.  I didn't really know what a quad was, but I was certain that life would be better if only my school had one.

When I was 16, I actually did go away to boarding school, but not the kind I had been dreaming of. In a bright spot in the state's otherwise lamentable track record on education, Mississippi had created a magnet school for the entire state for bright children, particularly those who showed aptitude in mathematics and the sciences.  It wasn't called boarding school, it was a residential high school, and to the state's enormous credit, it was publicly funded.  The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) changed my life in much the same way that I expected boarding school would, and, to my surprise, in many ways that I never would have expected.

But that's quite enough about my childhood. In getting back to Holly LeCraw's book, the second thing that resonated with me about The Half Brother is the fact that Charlie, the protagonist, is a transplanted Southerner.  Born in Georgia to a working class single mom, Charlie is a natural observer who has always felt a bit out of place.  When his mother marries the scion of an old Southern family, Charlie feels even more of an outsider, despite the fact that his new stepfather only wants to do right by him.

Through his stepfather's money and influence, Charlie escapes north to attend Harvard.  His degree in English literature nabs him a teaching position at a second-tier boarding school in western Massachusetts, not far from where I now live, as a matter of fact. Charlie is old school -- he fiercely believes in the power of literature to change a person's life -- and so, despite the fact that's never taught before, and that he's only a few years older than his students, he becomes an immediate favorite among the students. In other words, he's exactly the kind of teacher who would inspire his students to stand up on their desks, chanting "O Captain, My Captain."

At Abbotsford, Charlie falls in love with the rolling foothills of western New England, academia, and, eventually, the chaplain's daughter. May has returned a few years after graduation and is no longer Charlie's student, so there's nothing untoward in their relationship.  Or is there? Charlie's life is upended when first his mother, and then his much-younger half brother, Nick, rain family secrets down upon him.

LeCraw is a solid stylist, and the structure of The Half Brother works well for her story: Charlie narrates the book, but past and present intertwine as his story unfolds.  In the same way that Charlie cannot seem to choose one persona for himself, he cannot decide where to lead the reader, which story to settle on.  When Nick joins the faculty at Abbotsford and eventually becomes involved with May, who now teaches French there, Charlie no longer has the luxury of re-inventing himself with every incoming class of students, and this is where the story takes on more nuance.

It is one thing, I think, to write a good book, and another thing entirely to be able to end it well, but LeCraw mostly succeeds on both counts. I won't get into anything too spoilery here, but I will say that I am apparently a depraved enough reader that I would have preferred for Charlie and May to find happiness together without the benefit of the final plot twist. I'm sure that most other readers would not agree, though.

NB: Doubleday published The Half Brother in February and I read an advance reading copy that was provided upon my request by my sales rep. 


  1. I am not a huge boarding school story reader (I think I'm the only one who doesn't adore The Secret History), but this one sounds really good. I am a sucker for some good family secrets. Plus I went to a school kind of like yours that was brand spanking new, so our faculty was only a few years older than us too. I'm going to check it out!

  2. I am impressed you remember as much as you have considering how long ago it is. Go you. Also I very much enjoyed your trip down memory lane.

  3. Boarding school sounds so exciting, but I spent my junior year of high school as an exchange student in India, so that made up for the three other years of humdrum high school! I finally posted about The Half Brother this week, and wanted to let you know I linked to your review. I ended up not talking plot at all in mine, because I was so afraid of spoilers, too!


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