(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)
This Bright River
By Patrick Somerville
Reagan Arthur Books / Little, Brown and Company / Hachette
Sometimes I'm very glad that I've never met Chicago author Patrick Somerville, because it lets me do full critical reviews of his work without the taint of a personal bias; and that's especially welcome in the case of his newest novel, This Bright River, because it's a stunner that turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the entire year. Essentially Somerville's attempt at a Jonathan Franzen novel (or at least the first two thirds, but more on that in a bit), it tells what at first is a meandering dysfunctional-family story, about a disgraced trust-fund twentysomething who has been tasked by his rich Chicago parents to clean up a recently deceased uncle's home in the small Wisconsin town where they all grew up; and for the majority of the book this story unfolds in a highly competent if not expected way, as we get a more and more detailed look at the recent events that have made this man-child and minimum-security convict have the life he now leads, as he awkwardly reconnects with a former high-school acquaintance who is also back in their hometown as a means of running away from some sort of bad incident in her own recent past.
Ah, but then we enter the extended third act of this novel, which is where everything changes; because without giving away any plot points, it becomes clear that the incidents from the woman's recent past are both a lot more dangerous than anything else we've been looking at so far in these characters' lives, and an ongoing problem that hasn't yet been resolved*, turning This Bright River into a legitimate action thriller for its last hundred pages, a delightful thing to see after thinking that this was to be yet another character-heavy look at messed up Midwestern families. Now combine this with a growing sense of mystery about the unexplained death of this recently deceased uncle's son a decade ago, which seems in the first half to be merely a clever literary detail by Somerville but which blossoms into a main hinge of the plot by the end; and what you're left with is not just the usual academic tale of dysfunctional families but a deeply moving and thematically complex look at the black secrets all of us carry around in our lives, no matter who we are or how normal our lives seem to outsiders, a story that will have you not only thinking for days afterward but literally tearing through pages by the end, from the sheer sense of beach-read adventure that Somerville bakes into what is otherwise a pretty typical MFAer plot. A book that will easily earn a spot on our best-of-the-year lists coming in just another few weeks, this is a triumphant achievement for Somerville as an artist, especially after two previous books that I found only so-so; and if you haven't read this haunting novel for yourself yet, I urge you to pick up a copy soon.
Out of 10: 9.7
*SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! I usually try to avoid mentioning any important plot details in my book reviews, but I just had to make a special note in this case, and say how incredibly impressed I was by Somerville's treatment of the sexually violent sickness that guides our villain's actions in the climax of This Bright River, and especially how this villain has managed to get away with these acts of violence for decades now because he has literally only committed these acts four times in his life, a truly ill individual who acknowledges his sickness and spends years between each episode trying to control it. Although the literal plot details in this part are similar to how a supermarket thriller might play out, I love how much reality and nuance Somerville brings to the motivations that guide these actions (versus the cackling serial killer most such novels portray their sexually violent villains as), making the story that much more chilling by showing us that this villain could literally be any of a dozen people all of us know in our own real lives. Kudos to the author for delivering one of the best character developments I've read in years.