April 4, 2016

Book Review: "The Children's Crusade" by Ann Packer

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The Children's Crusade, by Ann Packer

The Children's Crusade
By Ann Packer
Scribner / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Quotes on this book's cover from critics regarding Ann Packer's older work makes it clear that she's a character-based novelist, one with apparently such a mastery over realistic detail that The New Yorker said that "her characters seem observed rather than invented;" but I have to say, if that's really the case, then she's a bit off with her newest book, The Children's Crusade, and unfortunately when a character-heavy novel is a bit off on the characterizations, there's very little left to satisfy. One of those classic academic stories in which nothing actually happens (unless you count "people start out younger and then they turn older" as "something happening"), this is the tale of a family of six who first settle in the 1950s in the area now known as "Silicon Valley," now facing a crisis over whether to sell the property in the go-go Dot Com years; and it's this decision that's giving them an excuse to think back over their entire lives at the rural ranch house, four grown kids with a dad who's now dead and an estranged mom living as an eccentric artist in Taos, after abandoning them Anne-Sexton style in the 1970s. The twofold problem with this, though, is that firstly no one in the family is actually interesting besides the crazy mom and the black-sheep youngest son who inherited many of her qualities; and in a novel devoted almost exclusively to a deep look at interesting characters, that presents a real problem when two-thirds of the characters aren't, and especially the under-developed dad who comes off as this pollyannish too-good-to-be-true Jimmy Stewart type, not nearly in line with the admittedly complex and fascinating job she does with the youngest son James, really the only person here who drives every other decision and reaction that every other character has. And then speaking of which, that's the other main problem, is that James comes off here as two different people -- as a kid he acts profoundly mentally challenged, to the point of undiagnosed autism, while as an adult he's back to being perfectly normal, albeit a slacker fuck-up -- and when the main pleasure of your novel relies on the characters being reliably consistent and believable, it ruins the illusion when the main one isn't. Not actually badly written, which is why it's not getting a bad score, the problem is that there's little here to actively engage the reader intellectually; and while I'm usually willing to cut books some slack on this subject, the fact that the author made intellectual engagement nearly the sole reason to read this book is why I find myself judging it harshly specifically in this case.

Out of 10: 7.1

Read even more about The Children's Crusade: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 4, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |