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.”