Photo of books on a shelf with text "Book Review" in script above

Musing on Good and Bad Reviews of The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw

cover imageTHIS POST IS SPOILER-FREE!

Reviews of the boarding school novel The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw range widely from “wonderful” to “worst book I’ve ever read”. (Disclosure: I reviewed this book for Library Journal, and plopped myself down closer to the “wonderful” side.) The widely varied reviews that I noticed on the Barnes & Noble page for The Half Brother, for example, made me look up other reviews, too, before writing this blog post, since I had already written my official review. (To avoid being influenced ahead of time, I avoid reading publicity materials or other reviews until I’ve written mine.) I was amazed by the huge plot spoilers in even the professional reviews, so watch out, if you read reviews before reading this book!

The story in The Half Brother is narrated in the first-person by Charlie Garrett, who graduates from Harvard University with no firm plan for the future except for not wanting to return to his mother’s home in the South. He lucks into a teaching job in the English department of a (fictitious) shabby-genteel prep school in central Massachusetts, and ends up staying on. Charlie admires his charismatic younger half brother, whose outsized personality is in sharp contrast with Charlie’s own solitary nature – which mirrors their mother’s, to his annoyance.

Author Holly LeCraw is a transplanted Southerner, herself, who stayed on in Massachusetts after college. This is her second novel, and I cringe thinking of her reading some of the reviews. One blog post (major spoiler in first sentence, so you can google it if you want to, I’m not going to link to it) is actually titled “Holly LeCraw’s The Half Brother Is Flat and Unimaginative”.

Ouch. That’s a reviewer who didn’t get that the author was creating a narrative voice, not writing a straightforward narrative.

Here’s the end of my Library Journal review of The Half Brother:

[It] is written in the analytic, but un-self-pitying voice of Charlie, with an air of Greek tragedy or Southern Gothic that should appeal to readers who liked The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermot. VERDICT: Fans of boarding school novels will snap up this story of lost loves, family secrets, and life at a New England prep school from behind the teacher’s desk.

That last sentence is the one that the author highlights on her Web site, but the librarian-quote that she features far more prominently on her home page is this rave from reader’s advisory goddess Nancy Pearl:

“I want people to read this novel. This is a wonderful, wonderful novel.” – Nancy Pearl, Seattle NPR

By contrast, the Publishers Weekly review starts off with this:

“In LeCraw’s wildly melodramatic sophomore novel (after The Swimming Pool)…”

Ouch again.

This is a book that would benefit by coming out in paperback for book clubs, but no paperback edition seems to be in the works yet, based on my not seeing any opportunity to order it in advance anywhere. I’ve seen some blog reviews around, so I’ll post links to some, but I recommend picking this book up for yourself instead, and seeing what you think before reviews make it impossible for the story to unfold before you as the author intended it to.

Read an excerpt on the publisher’s page here.

The Half Brother
LeCraw, Holly
Knopf, 2/17/15
9780385531955
288 pp.

Other opinions on The Half Brother:
As the Crowe Flies and Reads
Books on the Nightstand
Books on the Table

Sarah’s Bookshelves

a

6 thoughts on “Musing on Good and Bad Reviews of The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw”

  1. Thanks so much for linking to my review and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I agree with you that there was way too much info out there on this one…both in reviews and in the official publisher’s blurb. That kind of killed it for me! I definitely didn’t hate it, it was just missing that intangible something that makes certain books shine. I like how you laid out your review.

Would love to have you comment!