Chris Bohjalian specializes in the dissection of families in crisis. In "Midwives" and "The Buffalo Soldier," to name two of his best works, Bohjalian shows how previously happy families are brought low by the vicissitudes of life and by their own frailties. "Before You Know Kindness" (a mushy title that does not do justice to this fine book) tells the story of the Seton clan. Nan Seton is a widowed, wealthy, and endlessly energetic matriarch who spends her winters in her large apartment in Manhattan and her summers in the family home in New Hampshire. Every summer, Nan invites her son and daughter, John and Catherine, along with their spouses and children, to spend some time with her. Under Nan's direction, the family participates in an endless and dizzying round of athletic and social activities.
The book opens with a horrifying scene in which Spencer McCullough, Nan Seton's son-in-law, is accidentally shot in the shoulder, and very nearly killed. Spencer is an animal rights activist whose fanaticism on the subject is comic fodder for Bohjalian. Whether he is forcing inedible foods down his family's throats or insisting that his relatives wear plastic shoes, not leather, Spencer is unyielding in his insistence that no living thing with a parent should be a source of food or clothing for human beings. Spencer's overbearing personality and frequent absences from home have already alienated his wife, Catherine, who is ready to give up on her marriage.
After the shooting, the entire family goes into shock. This event shakes up everyone's comfortable assumptions about their lives and one another, and it forces them to reevaluate what is really important to them. Bohjalian is an expert at finding and articulating the telling detail that brings an event or an individual to life. For example, in the prologue, Bohjalian immediately grabs the reader's attention by providing an extensive description of the bullet that hits Spencer, the anatomical damage that it inflicts, and the heroic efforts of the EMT's who fight to keep Spencer alive until he reaches the hospital. The many scenes like this throughout the book draw the reader into the action, as if the author is engaged in an intense conversation with us in his living room.
Chris Bohjalian is an intimate writer, who examines each character minutely, showing us both their strengths and weaknesses, but always preserving their humanity. "Before You Know Kindness" is filled with gentle humor, sharp dialogue, and careful plotting. My two quibbles are the book's length and the pat ending. At over four hundred pages, the novel sags at times, and it could have been trimmed by at least fifty pages. In addition, Bohjalian wraps up his story a bit too neatly. However, the author's deep understanding of both children and adults impresses me, and I love how he opens a window into each character's mind and heart. No one depicts a family, with its disappointments, tragedies, hopes, and triumphs, with more skill and compassion than Chris Bohjalian.