I think I need a break from the crazy-family genre!
Before picking up Apologize, Apologize I felt as though I may have reached my tolerance limit for books focusing on eccentric families and their foibles, but because Elizabeth Kelly is Canadian, and I had read some promising reviews, I decided to put a hold on it at the library. Six months later the book came in, and after waiting to read it for so long, anticipation had built up and I was excited to crack it open.
Apologize, Apologize offers a wacky cast of characters, to be sure, the sanest of which is our ill-fated narrator, Collie Flanagan. He and his brother, Bingo – both named after dogs – are growing up in Martha’s Vineyard with a philanthropic, anti-establishment, spastic mother who ironically comes from old money. The rotten apple of her disdainful father’s eye, she prides herself on rebellion. Her disappointed father, this patriarch and king of the family newspaper empire, who the boys fearfully refer to as ‘the Falcon,’ is not a fan of – well, anyone really. High on his scorned list of ne’erdowells is his son-in-law, an Irish-Catholic, perpetually drunk, pauper, whom he disregards with a seething dislike that only a sobering, Irish-Protestant, capitalist could emit.
I was about mid-way through and trying to get a handle on this group’s particular brand of crazy, when I found myself wondering when there was going to be some semblance of a plot. Suddenly a succession of tragedies takes place, and a story starts to form…or does it? Does catastrophe equal storyline? Maybe for some, but it wasn’t enough to ever really hook me.
At best this seems to be a journey of self-discovery for our narrator, as he learns to become a man, and find his place amidst a family that continues to disappoint him. To his fearless mother and brother’s chagrin, he travels along his battered path with his preferred method of survival being to turtle against adversity. After watching him fail to defend himself or assert any convictions, we are privy to some important advice that Collie is offered by his overbearing grandfather, words that I found myself screaming at him throughout his sojourn to self-growth: “Stop trying to be all things to all people.”
He is shameful of the affluence that he’s been afforded by being born into this powerful family, is embarrassed by his lack of courage, and has no idea what he wants out of his life, or if it is even worth living. He wears his guilt like a shroud. In discovery of the man he wants to be he takes excursions to San Salvador and Ireland, which ultimately feel disjointed in relation to the story, and left me feeling as though the book was split in distinct and improperly flowing parts.
One of the more redeeming qualities to this book, at least to me personally, is that Collie’s dad had occasion to stay at the same hotel where my husband and I stayed for our honeymoon in Dublin; The Gresham Hotel. I always find it fascinating to read about landmarks or places that I’ve visited, as I’m sure most people do. It’s a way to find your senses alight as you pour over the familiar sights and sounds you’ve been presented with, both in real life and on the made-up page.
All in all, I won’t say that I didn’t like the book, because there were consistently funny and ironic moments that informed me of the lengths of the author’s creativity. (I particularly howled over the fact that the Falcon, [the Irish Protestant] named his dog Cromwell.) Kelly has laced the novel with birds and dogs, in all shapes, sizes and breeds, that I assume are used as metaphors for various characters and their varying personalities. Clearly there were themes of loss, courage, resilience, forgiveness, and finally acceptance, that gave the story some closure.
With that said, the incessant verbosity and ornate metaphors became suffocating after a few chapters, which left me putting down the book for a rest at frequent intervals. This may have been Kelly’s way of capturing their true voice, a sort of highbrow intellect often found in rich families…I don’t know. By the end of the book I found it to be lacking any definable plot, anti-climactic, while the characters came off as mainly one-dimensional and stereotypical. In my opinion, these attributes are tolerable in a memoir, but don’t carry much weight in fiction.
So I suppose I’m on the fence after all is said and done. I know that I expected more from the book, but it could be said that this is my own fault for buying into the hype. I will have to give Elizabeth Kelly another shot with her next novel so that I’ll have a basis for comparison.
Below, listen to a brief interview and character-analysis discussion with the author, Elizabeth Kelly, as conducted by www.bookbits.ca
This book was one of my selections for the Irish Reading Challenge.