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Ben and Carolyn Reiser live a placid middle class existence in bucolic New Hampshire.  Carolyn is a doctor, Ben a sculptor, and they have two kids, Judith and Jacob.  Things could not appear more mundane for this family of four.  But then one night while working the emergency room, Carolyn is confronted by the brutally beaten corpse of a teenage girl whom she recognizes.  What she does not realize is that it was her son Jacob who bludgeoned the girl to death with a car jack.  This killing will explode in the midst of the family, driving both parents to reckless actions, pitting one against the other, mother against son and daughter against all.  Narrated alternately by husband and wife and finally by Judith, Brown presents all sides of the contentious battle that ensues as Jacob goes to trial for murder.  Ben unquestioningly supports Jacob from the word go, even going so far as to destroy evidence and lie to cops, courts and his own lawyer.  Carolyn is more troubled, particularly as evidence mounts that, not only did Jacob commit this crime, he is a borderline psychopath who has molested his own sister.  Finally, unable to deal with her own guilt, Carolyn sides with the prosecution.  And so on and so forth.

Rosellen Brown is to be commended for making the effort to turn out a page turning thriller that also tackles substantial issues of family loyalty, moral responsibility and the limits of love.  But the book has one huge flaw at its center--we so loathe the Reisers that there is nothing sufficiently horrible that could happen to them.  Jacob is after all a predator.  As I was reading I found myself regretting that he could not get the death penalty here in New Hampshire.  So, suffice it to say, I did not feel much sympathy with the father who aided and abetted in the cover up of the crime.  And it takes so long for Carolyn to screw up her courage and do the right thing, that by then I couldn't give her any credit.  In fact, when she does finally cooperate with the authorities, it is not out of any sense of right and wrong, she is driven purely by guilt.  Her action follows the best, most authentic, scene in the book, when she attempts to commiserate with the murdered girls mother, telling her that the crime has shattered both families.  The girl's mother reacts with a righteous indignation that has the reader cheering.  Here is the character that we can identify with, at last.  And it is only after this that Carolyn finally realizes that she is not herself a victim and folks don't feel sorry for her.  When she testifies, it is a selfish act, an attempt to reclaim her own reputation, regardless of the consequences to her vile little offspring.

But Ben is no better.  The son he is trying to protect is some idealized golden child who bears no relation to the monster he raised.  His refusal to cooperate with the authorities is less about protecting a beloved son than proving something about himself.  These are not characters who love one another.  Each of them is merely an object to the other and relations among them are premised on how others perceive them, not on any genuine sense of caring and family.

Ms Brown's depiction of this Baby Boomer couple and their completely self-centered reaction to these events may well be accurate.  And such folks may even be so self absorbed that they could bring up this repellent child without noticing that he is evil.  But their obliviousness strained credulity and once we accept it, we necessarily think less of them.  This inevitably creates an emotional distance from the characters and saps the story of much of its drama.  By the time I got to the weirdly happy ending, she'd completely lost me.

American society has developed a really troubling aversion to the concept of whistleblowing.  Communists and mobsters are celebrated for refusing to testify about massive criminal conspiracies.  Linda Tripp became the most hated woman in America by exposing wrongdoing in the Oval Office.  And people were genuinely shocked when the Unabomber's brother lead the FBI to him.  I don't know what the heck people are thinking.  But here's a memo to friends and family, if you happen to cave in a young girl's head with a car jack, unless she's someone who was profoundly annoying, I'm not going to help you get away with it.


Grade: (C)


Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY: WRITERS UNDER A DOUBLE DISADVANTAGE (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A SIMPLE PLAN By Scott Smith (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of DON'T TELL THE GROWN-UPS Subversive Children's Literature. By Alison Lurie (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
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    -REVIEW: of  IN MY FATHER'S NAME A Family, a Town, a Murder. By Mark Arax (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  TRIALS OF THE EARTH The Autobiography of Mary Hamilton. Edited by Helen Dick Davis (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
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    -REVIEW: of  AFTER SHE LEFT By Richard P. Brickner (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
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    -REVIEW: of  THE VILLAGE BY THE SEA By Paula Fox (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  BABY By Patricia MacLachlan (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: If Your Son Were a Killer, What Would You Do?  (ESTHER B. FEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of BEFORE AND AFTER By Rosellen Brown (Michael Dorris, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Before and After By Rosellen Brown (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: The Day That Changed It All:  Before and After by Rosellen Brown (Jeremy Schmidt)
    -REVIEW: Rosellen Brown's Before and After (Lee Lawton (Q4 1996), Women's Books Online)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEWS: Brown, Rosellen (Medical Humanities, NYU)
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    -Women's Books Online: A Cooperative Book Review:  Reviews of Women's Books by Women of the World