This is the 2nd book I have read by this author. While the book has a "single" not overly exciting incident that joins together the storyline of this book; I did find all the other "various issues" to be still current. (book was written 2004, its now 2012). I found the ending satisfying enough, and the characters to be believeable. My favorite character was Spencer, and all his beliefs and inner strugles. There was huge insight to all things vegan and all things done to the planet and animals. The one flaw to this book would be its overwordiness. I found this harmed my enjoyment of the book because It needed much skimming throughout. However it was still an ok read.
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62 of 67 people found the following review helpful
A powerful and engrossing domestic drama.Oct. 10 2004
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Layered personalities and layered motives. I loved it!Oct. 8 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
The book opens with the description of a gunshot wound. There's no mystery. We know right away that Spencer McCullough, while visiting his mother-in-law in New Hampshire with his wife and family, is accidentally shot by his 12-year old daughter, Charlotte. He doesn't die but the wound has destroyed his shoulder. He will never be able to use his arm again and it will eventually have to be amputated.
We then flash back a few days and we get to meet the family. They're upscale and, this home in New Hampshire is Nan McCullough's second home. During the winter months she lives in a sprawling Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. Her daughter Sara is married to Spencer, who is works as an animal rights activist and makes speeches around the country. To many, people including myself, he seems a bit of a nutjob because he doesn't even allow his daughter to wear leather shoes or ever visit a zoo. Also visiting their mother that week is Nan's other grown child, John, a lawyer, married to Sara, a psychologist. They have a 10-year old daughter, Willow, and a newborn baby boy. They live in Vermont, and even though they understand the animal rights issues, John has recently taken up hunting and has left a gun with a bullet in the back of his car.
How this all plays out is complicated and intriguing. The author uses a lot of words and brings out the subtleties of everyone's personality. He is especially insightful regarding the children. I understood exactly what each individual was going though, both before and after the gunshot incident. This is a book with layered personalities and layered motives. I got to know each character deeply. The experience of reading the book was like just joining in on their lives.
But this book is more than just about the relationships among the people. Central to the theme is the animal rights movement. There is a potential lawsuit against the gun manufacturer with full blown media attention. Is this motive really altruistic? Is it about ambition? What about the relationship between the wounded father and his sorrowful daughter? There's also a secret that the two young girls know about the shooting that night that could change everything. What happens in the next few months? And how does it all end?
The book is 422 pages and I read it rather quickly. And during the time I was reading it I felt I knew every person intimately. The way the book was constructed just pulled me right in. I thought about it constantly and pondered the moral questions it brought up. This is a good read. It also made me think.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Thank Goodness for the PrologueJan. 3 2005
Richard A. Mitchell
- Published on Amazon.com
If it were not for the Prologue, nothing concrete would have happened in this novel for the first 160 pages or so. It was a slow start to an excellent expose of people's true characters and motivations.
As one can tell by the prologue, a man is shot by his 12 year old daughter. What the prologue does not tell you is who these people are or why he was shot. Mr. Bohjalian then spends a bit too long "introducing" the characters - a brother and sister, their mother, daughters and spouses. After the episode with the gun, the novel really picks up and grabs the reader.
The conflicts are endless among the characters who are related. The author then brings in lawyers and animal rights activists who all have their agendas and want to superimpose them on the family that is quickly crumbling under the stress of the accidental (or was it) shooting.
There is no romance or chivalry in Mr. Bohjalian's characters. He strips them to their basest personalities. They therefore are not likeable, but they are thoroughly understandable. The characters as portrayed are probably the most realistic possible - do we really have nobililty and romance in our lives? Do we really have those assets when tragedy hits? We would like to think we do, but this novel hits home as the characters act, think and say what we would all probably be thinking in their place, even if we do not go through with our thoughts. For example, if you are left crippled by a stupid mistake of your brother-in-law, wouldn't you rather not speak to him than forgive and forget?
The characters are very realistically portrayed. Their emotions are brutally displayed. The only character a reader can root for is the ten year old cousin, Willow. Her innocence and lack of alterior motives makes her likeable and gives the view we would like to see. The other characters display those qualities we all have but would like to keep hidden.
Bohjalian is similar to Wolf in his portrayal of less than sympathetic characters, but somehow, for me, he does it better. A reader does not come to hate any of the characters (although the man shot is an annoyingly fanatic animal rights guy) because they all ring to too true to ourselves. They do nothing hateful, only what we would do if left to our own selves in difficult situations.
Along with the character portrayals, the author brings to the table such issues, as gun control, hunting and animal rights. Since both sides of every issue are presented there appears to be no agenda by the author.
The writing is superb. After the shooting, when all the conflicts hit, the book really captures the reader and moves much better.
A very good read. A very good portrayal of realistic characters.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
An anatomy of a familyNov. 27 2004
- Published on Amazon.com
Having been a huge fan of all Bohjalian's previous books, Before You Know Kindness was at the top of my list to read when it came out. Taking on vegetarians, vegans and gun control, this book tackels a lot of topics and does so with finess.
Underneath all of the central topics, as in most of his books, family and relationships are at the heart of this book. And what tragedy or difference can do to a family, a relationship. What I enjoyed about the book was that Bohjalian did not clearly make a stance on whether he thought hunting was wrong, or that people should not eat meat. Although, it was obvious that gun control, and learning how to properly care for a gun was foremost in his mind.
Overall, another great book by Bohjalian! I enjoyed the characters and their development. I especially enjoyed the ending which was well worth the wait and truly made the entire book for me. If you're new to his writing- I think once you read this you'll do what I did and devour his entire catalogue! Happy Reading!
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A story packed with power, but told in beautiul hushed tonesOct. 15 2004
- Published on Amazon.com
Chris Bohjalian is no stranger to controversial subjects. In TRANS-SISTER RADIO, he addressed homosexuality and transsexuality. In BUFFALO SOLDIER, he tackled interracial adoption. And in THE LAW OF SIMILARS, the subject at hand was holistic medicine. In each of these, and in all of Bohjalian's novels, his art is subtle, graceful and thoughtful. BEFORE YOU KNOW KINDNESS is no exception to the literary realities that are the hallmarks of Bohjalian's writing. He balances --- seemingly effortlessly --- the two sides of the gun laws argument deftly, and he draws (once again) characters of great depth and dimension.
Three generations of the Seton family descend upon their country home in New England, as they have for a decade, to enjoy each other's company as the summer winds down. Nan Seton (matriarch of the family), her two children, their spouses, and their children fill the house with good conversation and healthy competition, despite their differences. This summer finds Catherine Seton restless and weary of her husband Spencer's activism on behalf of animals and vegetarians. John Seton is a secret hunter, fearful of telling his brother-in-law about his new extracurricular activity. The female cousins are tight, sweetly conspiratorial in an adolescent/pre-adolescent way. Family tensions abound under the surface and explode one tragic night when an unattended gun in John's car gets into the hands of Charlotte, a teenager.
What happens next is twofold: first, the initial unraveling of long-hewn relationships in the wake of near infidelity, physical disfigurement, familial silences and deceptions, and a threatened non-profit marketing campaign guaranteed to destroy all involved. And then, the finding of balance and peace that reunites all sectors of the family. How Bohjalian does it amazes me. Palpable tensions between siblings, spouses, and sisterly-cousins play themselves out on the pages amidst the propaganda of gun control and animal rights, without ever taking one side over another: in the arms argument and in the family arguments. In the end, it all just works out. As I said before, it's as if without effort, as if it was always known that it would work out.
Bohjalian has a rare talent. He tells stories packed with power in beautiful hushed tones -- almost whispers. Even the title, BEFORE YOU KNOW KINDNESS, implies all that has to transpire prior to good. This novel is all about the happenings that lead to the Seton family's ultimate contentment and happiness, and all that leads to the reader's ultimate contentment and happiness with a tale.