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The power of people and places – ‘The O’Briens’

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Multi-generational novel both epic and intimate

The power of family is a constantly explored theme in the literary world. Telling stories that span generations has long been a favorite undertaking for novelists great and small; Maine resident Peter Behrens is one of those who falls more into the former category. His latest offering is “The O’Briens” (Pantheon; $25.95), a story that springs from – but is no way reliant on – his previous work “The Law of Dreams.”

Our book begins with the O’Brien family struggling their way through a hardscrabble existence in the wilds of western Quebec right around the turn of the 20th century. We watch as young Joe O’Brien comes of age the hard way, slowly and steadily building himself an entrepreneurial empire.

Of course, life is about more than just monetary success. We also watch as Joe builds a family of his own, a family he swears will never have to endure the same hardships that dominated his own youth. However, life is rarely as easy as we feel it should be, and Joe and his family are confronted with an entirely new set of obstacles to their happiness – different, yes, but no less difficult because of that.

The novel sweeps back and forth across the North American continent. From California beaches to New York City streets, from the wild woods of western Canada to the civilized cottages of Kennebunk, Maine, “The O’Briens” is a tale both epic and self-contained. Despite the breadth of its scope, the novel holds family above all else at its center. Behrens shows a particular gift for creating scenes that are compelling for both their grand scale and their focused intimacy.

In Joe O’Brien, Behrens has created a rich and complex hero, an imperfect man for whom we nonetheless find ourselves rooting. Granted, while Joe might be the central hub on which the proceedings turn, the multi-generational supporting cast that orbits around him is just as compelling.

Joe’s triumphs and trials would be meaningless without a well-developed sense of his family. His brother Grattan, his wife Iseault, his children Mike, Frankie and Margo – each of them contributes a vital piece to the overall puzzle that is “The O’Briens.”

The story of the O’Brien family would make for wonderful reading in any context, but Behrens does his readers a great service by tapping into a deep knowledge of (and obvious love for) Canada and its provinces. While the entire book is a deeply engaging read, Behrens shines his brightest when describing the swath-cutting through western Canada, the ramshackle stolidity of Pontiac County or the beauty of early 20th century Montreal. In “The O’Briens,” the power of people and the power of place are irrevocably intertwined.

This is a saga that warrants your attention. This is a story whose quiet brilliance can’t be ignored. It’s an intimate epic, if that makes sense – a portrait of an entire world through the lens of a single bloodline. All the joy and passion, all the anger and fear, all the love and loss involved in simply living and being – that’s what Peter Behrens has captured with “The O’Briens.”

Last modified on Thursday, 08 March 2012 16:31

1 Comment

  • Comment Link Sarah Cecil Monday, 12 March 2012 16:48 posted by Sarah Cecil

    Don't miss Peter Behrens discussing the writing process with his friend and former MA professor Clark Blaise on Sat. March 31 at 9:30 am at the Maine Festival ofthe Book at the Abromson Center at USM, Portland. Free! He will be among the more than 50 authors and performers participating in the festival. Programs for all ages and interests!

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