Saturday, June 20, 2009

Three Weeks With My Brother - Nicholas Sparks

Summary: Who wouldn't want to go on a trip around the world? When best-selling novelist Sparks receives a travel brochure from his alma mater, Notre Dame, he thinks, "If not now, then when?" and asks his brother to join him. They both have family obligations, but this sounds like the trip of a lifetime... As they journey to faraway places, the brothers reminisce about their unusual childhood. Instead of the idealistic life readers may imagine, their early years were marked by poverty, although redeemed by their mother's great love. Their father was a graduate student working several jobs to support the family, and the boys, best friends as well as brothers, led an independent life filled with adventure, derring-do, and responsibilities beyond their years. Booklist review by Patty Engelmann, via Amazon.com.

My Review: When this was announced as the next book club read the unanimous response was a pained "ungh". Apparently none of us were in the mood to have our hearts mercilessly flagellated. The upcoming host assured us that the book was non-fiction, a memoir, and we were therefore unlikely to find steamy, rain drenched love scenes or heroic sacrifices of the stoic, yet handsome, male lead. On this condition we agreed to read it.

The story of the author's childhood was interwoven with that of the present day trip he took with his brother. Comparing the two I thought the childhood story was much more interesting and I found myself waiting anxiously for the "scene" to cut from present day to the past. The author's childhood is perfect for examining "good parenting verses bad parenting" and also for discussing what the measurement of a good parent is. Despite certain "bad parent" tendencies his parents had, often a bi-product of their very depressed financial situation, the author and his siblings grew to be well-adjusted contributors to society. Many of the characteristics they developed that helped them reach successful adulthood where developed as a result of the "bad-parenting" moments. Perhaps the children's success was a result of the balance between good and bad decisions of the parents. Perhaps there is hope for us all.

Also interesting to me were the short excerpts about the brother's wives and families. Partially this was because I wondered "what did their wives think of them taking off for three weeks to travel the globe (leaving them home with the kids)?" I was also impressed by the efforts the author and his wife take to overcome a severe learning/social disability that one of their (five) children has. This adds depth to the author's character and demonstrates how traits developed in his childhood really came into play as an adult.

Now, as for the present day descriptions of the trip he took. This is were I ran into some problems. First, I didn't have to imagine the tour group he was in (80+ people) because I saw them, or at least their type, all too often when I lived (briefly) in Rome (and of course thought myself better than the "tourists"). Loud, ignorantly rude, and like the author, oblivious to the disruption they were causing. These groups traipse through ancient landscapes looking for the next funny photo-op and the author proudly describes how he and his brother did just that.

Second, while the retelling of the childhood memories rang true, in the modern day story there were certain conversations between the author and his brother that I suspected had been doctored to move the story along. In my opinion this is a perfectly valid tool to use, as long as I don't recognize it. If I do then I once again feel manipulated by saccharine, jolty dialogue and moments that call for a crescendo of orchastra music. To put it bluntly, there were some conversations that I just don't believe two men, even very close brothers, would have.

This book proves my point about manipulative fiction, verses as-life-happens non-fiction. The story of the authors life, as told in this book, has multiple heartbreaking events, but their veracity allowed me to mourn with the author, rather than turn away, wounded, by words selected solely to make me cry.

My rating: 3.9 stars

In one sentence: Deep, but not too deep. Emotional, but not too emotional.

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