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on February 4, 2013
Early trauma in an exceedingly poor, traumatized Irish immigrant family is tracked it into the next generation. The novel shows the manner in which early, strong, and committed mother-love rescued some of the first family of children so that some could trundle forward. Still, the Irish famine was so terrible that it caused what is now understood to be a kind of amnesia that took its toll on the emotional lives of generations to follow.

This novel shows that while children of trauma can be successful in the domain of business, hard work does nothing to develop the intimacy and presence that love relationships require.

Eleanor Cowan, author of A History of a Pedophile's Wife: Memoir of a Canadian Teacher and Writer
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on September 28, 2011
In the end, as in the beginning, it's about family.

Peter Behrens' first novel, The Law of Dreams, centered on the fierce attempt of a young, nineteenth-century Irishman to survive in a desperate world of famine and exploitation after his family had been violently erased from the narrow patch of earth that was his home. The key to that survival was to keep moving, from Ireland, to England, and on to North America, in the hope of constructing a new life. In this second novel, The O'Briens, Behrens examines what it means to construct a life, not just for a newcomer in a new land, but for anyone.

Behrens' other great subject, besides family, is place. We first encounter Joe O'Brien and his younger brothers and sisters, descendants of the hero of Behrens' previous book, in the early twentieth century, coming of age in Pontiac County, in western Quebec. It's hard to imagine the light of the modern world ever breaking in on this darkly wooded, isolated landscape. The siblings, each in his or her way shaped by that environment, leave and begin to disperse, seeking to make of their lives whatever talent and opportunity might allow them.

In time, we follow Joe from the evanescent, ghostly canals of the freshly built tracts of Venice, California, where he meets his wife-to-be, Iseult, to the harsh terrain of central and western Canada, where he establishes the basis for his fortune by contracting for the laying of railroad track across the mountains. It is also here that he and Iseult begin their family. As that family grows, the next phases of the story play out from Santa Barbara to Kennebunk to Montreal. History, place, and event are all densely and exquisitely evoked, from the early twentieth century to World War 2 and beyond.

Through it all runs the attempt of the men and women of this large and varied family to come to terms with themselves and their interconnections, a task that Behrens shows doesn't always-- perhaps can't ever-- lead to complete success, above all in relation to the mysteries that envelope that most intimate of connections, marriage. There are things we can't know about ourselves, or about those to whom we're attached by blood and love. Behrens doesn't just uncover the universal revelations, betrayals, tragedies, and small triumphs that mark most lives; he also manages to place them within the everyday particularities of time and place.

These individuals and their world are movingly imagined and described. The O'Briens is a sweeping, emotionally engaging read that begins, and ends, where the richest and most honest stories generally do-- in the open-ended struggle to know and define ourselves amid the places and people we daily affect and to which we're inescapably bound.
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on August 30, 2011
I'd read Behrens's first book so when I heard that his second was available in Canada (It hasn't been published yet in the U.S.), I couldn't wait. I was not disappointed. From the first unforgettable scene set in the early 1900s in the outback of Quebec, in which a priest teaches a group of uncivilized siblings to waltz in his improbably cultured living room, ("It wasn't that he loved the dance....What he was trying to teach was courage.") I couldn't put the book down. If I'd had to keep reading by flashlight I would have. Until the batteries ran out. The writing is gorgeous, but having read The Law of Dreams, I expected that. And once again, the historical setting was so seamlessly and convincingly woven into the story that I felt for the few days it took me to read it that I was living (happily) in the first half of the twentieth century. This book is more complicated and layered than the first, which had a compact elegance, and the many characters are beautifully and compelling drawn. Finishing the book late last night was like taking the last bite of that from-scratch ginger cake I love and so rarely get to taste, deliciously sad. I tried to make it last, but I couldn't stop reading. I miss Joe and Iseult and Frankie already.
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on August 22, 2011
It started off just fine, and I was enjoying it. I started to lose interest around the chapters Iseult took over--I just found it unbelievable that just after the turn of the century a single woman could buy a house! I wound up putting the book down and never bothered to finish it. Maybe if I'd stuck with it I would've liked it, but I just couldn't do it.
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on September 14, 2011
The O'Briens writes a fine balance between people and places, events; of carving and being carved (railway, family, war) so that its story is not plot driven any more than life itself can be. In this way it is similar to The Law of Dreams. Although one likes to believe experience and security bring control over life there are times for letting go and times for hanging on. The ending is particularly masterful as so much rested on how Behrens managed it. The O'Brien family tree grows strong and gnarled with deep roots and a crown of grace.
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on July 29, 2011
This epic novel is both an artfully-crafted tale of patriarch Joe O'Brien and his family - full of nuance, richly portrayed characters, and vividly described landscapes in two countries and on both coasts - and an irresistible page turner. Behrens' talent as a writer however makes it worth slowing down and savoring each page. There is a reason his first novel 'The Law of Dreams' won the Governor General's Award and it is clearly evident in 'The O'Briens' as well. I hope his next book is well underway!
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on July 28, 2011
"The O'Briens" seduces the reader, with grace and force - one soars, is broken and then soars again. Behrens, who made the epic tragedy of Ireland's Great Hunger so very personal, so transformative in "The Law of Dreams," goes deeper still as he follows the O'Briens into the 20th century. The rhythm of language, of time and life wash over you, pull you deep into the personal and give you a view from heights seldom scaled. I love this book. The O'Briens
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on October 20, 2012
I thought the depictions of canadian regions and society at various times very accurate. The relationship between Joe O'Brien and his wife, however, bewildering. He was a confident, successful self-made business man but he seemed incapable of loving or even communicating with his wife and later his children. Perhaps this diversity is exactly what the author wanted to convey.The O'Briens
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on August 21, 2014
I love the book !!!! Well written ..... I wish he had more!!!
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on March 24, 2016
Reads like a galequin romance ....disappointing after his last two
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