Tawni O’Dell’s latest novel, “Fragile Beasts,” is an engaging tale of family dynamics, culture, dreams, abilities and self-worth. From the first sentence of the powerfully written prologue, the reader is drawn in to the world created by O’Dell, featuring an aging heiress, Candace Jack, and two young teenaged brothers, Kyle and Klint Hayes, who are in need of a home and guidance.
The Hayes brothers have just experienced the accidental death of their father and are faced with losing their home. Now their absentee mother is about to swoop in and disrupt their lives, and Klint’s promising high school baseball career, by moving them to Arizona to live with her. Both boys want nothing of it.
Kyle’s friend, Shelby Jack, has the unlikely idea of the brothers moving in with her eccentric and wealthy aunt, Candace Jack. No one else sees the validity of her idea, at least not initially. Kyle thinks, “She’s going to ask us how we’re doing, this crazy, mean, ugly aunt of Shelby’s.”
The Jack household introduces the boys to a very different way of life and set of values. Luis, a Spaniard who has been in Candace Jack’s employ for more than 45 years, presents Klint and Kyle with new foods and culture, and seems to battle daily with Candace. He says of himself, “I am a complicated and surprising man.”
Set in a decaying mining town of western Pennsylvania, readers will identify with O’Dell’s use of familiar landscapes and personalities. The author writes from her background, and Pennsylvanians will appreciate local references, such as the following scene: “Before tonight, I’ve seen him cry exactly twice: once when Jerome Bettis fumbled in the final moments of the Steelers playoff game. ...” She incorporates the locale into her storyline in a variety of ways, including her spot-on description of the Altoona Curve ballpark.
But the book will entice other readers without a western Pennsylvania connection.
O’Dell writes with such skill of voice and character that the reader feels immersed in the scene, as though the characters are already known and are important to the reader. She seamlessly manages to include her knowledge of Spain, derived from having a second home there.
I was entranced as the story unfolded, drawn in more and more with each new chapter, although I was already hooked by the prologue. Interspersed with the goings-on in the little Pennsylvania town, the secondary, yet intriguing storyline of the bullfighter Manuel Obrador and his story set in Spain will also pull in readers.
O’Dell is an accomplished author, penning the New York Times best-seller Oprah’s Book Club selection “Back Roads.” Other works include “Coal Run” and “Sister Mine,” a Book Sense No. 1 pick.
As O’Dell explores the fragility of life and relationships, you will find humor, tension, tragedy and love throughout this novel. Highly recommended.
Denise Weaver is a freelance writer and a regular correspondent for Somerset Magazine. Her work has also appeared in Johnstown Magazine and the Daily American. A Published Penn member of Pennwriters and a former library director, she enjoys living in the Laurel Highlands.