"Fragile Beasts" by Tawni O’Dell

Fragile Beasts
Tawni O’Dell
Shaye Areheart Books • $25.00

Thus far, by writer’s standards, Tawni O’Dell has had quite a blessed life. Not only has her career been blessed—once by the Oprah Book Club and again by the Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection (all of which helped push her onto The New York Times’ bestsellers’ list)—but she is blessed with a true gift for storytelling.

Fragile Beasts, O’Dell’s fourth novel, showcases her talent once again for crafting seamlessly interwoven narratives and three-dimensional worlds, complete with damaged, well-sketched characters and authentic detail. As a writer, O’Dell very much believes in the power of place, and for her, that place is the coal mining region of western Pennsylvania—a setting she has (ahem) mined for inspiration again and again. They say write what you know, and by having the fortune of growing up in Indiana, Pa., O’Dell is following that formula to a “T.”

But Fragile Beasts diverges from her past work a bit. Sure, the plot, which churns along at a mighty clip, focuses on teenage brothers Kyle and Klint, the products of a blue-collar upbringing and replete with a life full of infirmity and absent parents—one due to alcohol and the other to neglect. Though the boys are victims of place and class, both show a world of promise—Kyle is bright and artistic, while Klint, a troubled high school baseball star, is burdened by the weight of a terrible secret and an entire town’s hopes for redemption and glory.

When their father dies in a one-car drunk driving accident, the boys have few options: either move to Arizona with the mother who abandoned them or “run away.” But in a strange twist of fate, their town’s matriarch Candace Jack, an eccentric, wealthy old woman whose family once owned the country coal mines, for reasons unbeknownst even to her, decides to take the boys in. Miss Jack, though once proud and beautiful, is now a 75-year-old eccentric spinster who has lived a secluded life ever since the tragic death of her lover, a famed Spanish bullfighter, Manuel, more than 50 years prior. Her obsession with Manuel’s death runs deep—and not only includes caring for the descendant of the bull who killed him and living with the man’s main assistant, Luis, who came to the states to care for the bulls.

Sure, the story is stuffed with blue-collar Joes and down-on-their-luck folks, but page space is shared equally between Laurel County and Spain, Candace Jack and the boys (with a few chapters put aside for Luis), proving that O’Dell’s knowledge of place carries well beyond coal country. According to her bio, O’Dell is married to a translator and splits her time between Pennsylvania and Spain, and she’s obviously gained enough insight into the country to dispel (through the character of Luis) “three popular American misconceptions about [the] country and [its] people […] Spain is nothing like Mexico; Antonio Banderas is nothing like a Spaniard; and Ernest Hemingway knew nothing about bullfighting.”

This is the type of book perfect for summer reading—full of page-turning conflict, emotional tension, tinges of humor and beautiful prose: Four-hundred pages have never moved so quickly.

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