The Children's Crusade by Anne Packer
How can one deal with someone you love pulling away from you? This is the question posed in Anne Packer's latest novel about the Blairs, Penny and Bill, their marriage, their home, the land it was built on and their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James. More than that, this is about Penny's gradual detachment from them, and how it affects each of them, later in their lives.
Much of this book centers on James, the youngest son, and his rebellious (or perhaps ADD) spontaneity that both charms and exasperates all of his family. Not only is he the only Blair child whose name doesn't start with the letter "r," he's also very different from them all, in many other ways. In fact, it is his turn-about decision to finally sell their childhood home and land that is the major conflict of the book. Packer tells these stories, alternating third-person accounts of the past with first-person accounts from the each of the various characters. This makes for a compelling basis for this novel, and Packer builds it beautifully through her characters' development, with the past and present eventually coming together chronologically and a writing style that is graceful and accessible.
With this level of praise, you're probably wondering why I am only giving it three out of five stars. The truth is that while I couldn't stop reading about these people, I also had the feeling that something wasn't all there. Throughout the narrative, we are always aware of youngest son James, who is both at the heart of this story as well as on the sidelines and in the background. However, it seems to me that Packer didn't totally understand James, and so we never get to understand him either.
If we look at this as a psychological investigation into this family, we can see how Penny's actions adversely affected these four children and her relationship with her husband, but we have to look hard for these manifestations. What's more, just when we think we're about to get to the heart of something, the story pulls back and goes onto another track. For example, Ryan's girlfriend Sierra disparages her mother's taste in music, and quotes a line from the Air Supply song Lost in Love that says, "I'm back on my feet, and eager to be what you wanted." Sierra calls this "messed up" but James doesn't understand what the problem is, what is wrong with wanting to be what someone else wanted? Unfortunately, instead of delving further into this, Packer just leaves it there, and moves on. Things like this prevent us from really empathizing with James. Packer does this throughout the book, giving us many juicy snippets like this, but none of them connects to any other, and there are no real conclusions.
If this vagueness is the whole point of this book, then I must be missing something. If there was an epiphany here then I missed it, because despite the lovely prose and interesting characters, the story seems so... bland, and leaves us feeling more puzzled than caring. Because of this, although I'm sure many will disagree with me, I can't give it more than three out of five stars.
"The Children's Crusade" by Anne Packer, released April 7, 2015 by Scribner, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this book via NetGalley.