The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw follows the life and career of Charlie Garrett, a Southern transplant to the North. The book opens with Charlie Garret’s first day in a new job. The son of a younger widow, Charlie’s mother re-married into an elite family and she and now has young son Nick, whom Charlie dubs “The Golden Boy.”
Feeling as if he doesn’t belong within his mother’s new family, Charlie attends Harvard and is then hired at The Abbot, a prestigious Massachusetts prep school. Even though he continues to feel out of place among his high society colleagues, Charlie finds true contentment in the classroom.
There he meets May, the headmasters young daughter, who feels as much out of place in her own family as Charlie does in his. As May comes into her own as a woman the attraction between them grows, culminating in a romance that comes to life just as May’s father begins the end of his.
In the midst of all this, Charlie’s mother Anita hovers in the background like a specter. At first she is the driving force that pushes him to Harvard and eventually to Abbot. Then, she becomes the constant reminder that it is his brother, and not he, Charlie, who is the beloved son. Her continual worry over her younger son as he begins his own teaching career first in Haiti and then in Afghanistan, drives an even further wedge between her and her older son.
Meanwhile May finds her first source of true happiness in her relationship with Charlie. Happiness, which comes to a sudden halt when he ends their relationship almost immediately after her father’s funeral and heads west for several months.
Told entirely from the perspective of Charlie, The Half Brother is an enjoyable but not fully developed story. The book shows initial promise, but relies too much on the prep school environment and quickly falls into predictability.
As the story progresses, we learn that each character holds secrets that all intertwine with each other’s lives. For Charlie it is at first the feelings he harbors towards May, his student. It then expands into his buried resentment of his younger brother who instantly charms everyone he meets. For Nick it is the realization that despite his brilliant mind and his ability to draw people in, he can only feel alive within the chaos of a third world country. For Anita it is the truth of her first marriage and how it has impacted her relationship with Charlie. Finally, for May it is the longing she feels to be loved by her own mother while simultaneously pushing her away in an effort to guard herself from rejection.
Each of the character’s secrets has a ripple effect changing not only their own relationships but also the relationships of those around them in severe and life altering ways. In the midst of this, LeCraw creates a tragic sub-plot surrounding one of the students at the school.
Lecraw’s writing style is engaging enough to keep the reader interested, but the storyline never completely finds its stride. The primary plot twist while dramatic, comes off as somewhat contrived and unsurprising. As a reader, I found the storyline mostly interesting, but I did find myself struggling at times to remain engaged. The story starts out at a brisk pace and quickly draws the reader into the plot and the ending pulls the reader back into the story with a bittersweet twist and well timed pacing. The middle section drags however, and readers may find themselves in a position where they are ready to give up. I would encourage readers to stick it out, though admittedly skipping a few small sections in the middle have no impact on understanding the book as a whole.
The Half Brother’s characters show great potential to be interesting people. The potential however is never quite reached as LeCraw fails to develop them to full understanding. Charlie’s loneliness and sense of abandonment which stems from the death of the father he never knew, dances on the edge of whininess at times.
Nick, Charlie’s brother has no complexity at all. Like Charlie he shows signs of struggling with feelings of abandonment as his own father (Charlie’s step-father) drinks himself together while he is still young. These feelings however are expressed as one who is an egotistical and self-centered brat who never matured emotionally beyond the age of three.
Anita, Charlie and Nick’s mother hovers in the background where Charlie is concerned and is over-bearing where Nick is concerned. Neither son has any sort of healthy relationship with her, and her presence becomes necessary only when used for a not entirely shocking plot-twist.
May is the most complex character of them all and I found myself wishing LeCraw would explore her more. After her break up with Charlie, May travels through France and other parts of Europe. Her strength is a testament to the fact that she can function perfectly well without either Charlie or Nick, and yet she continually pushes herself towards both.
Finally, the sub-plot becomes a driving force for the primary plot, but leaves the reader wanting something more. The impact that it has on each of the main characters leads to a too neat resolution as if LeCraw got to the end of writing and realized she had forgotten to resolve that aspect of the book.
Fans of The Secrets of Midwives will likely enjoy The Half Brother. Though The Secrets of Midwives centers on the lives of the three women, The Half Brother is similar in its theme of secrets and feelings of displacement within one’s own family. Unlike The Secrets of Midwives which allows the reader to see events from each of the characters points of view, The Half Brother is told entirely from the perspective of Charlie who comes off as an unreliable narrator at best.
Readers looking for a strong book about family and the impact of long kept secrets would do better to turn to The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy or Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler. Each handles intense and controversial topics with a deftness that LeCraw tries for but never actually reaches.