Chris Bohjalian is no stranger to controversial subjects. In TRANS-SISTER RADIO, he addressed homosexuality and transsexuality. In BUFFALO SOLDIER, he tackled interracial adoption. And in THE LAW OF SIMILARS, the subject at hand was holistic medicine. In each of these, and in all of Bohjalian's novels, his art is subtle, graceful and thoughtful. BEFORE YOU KNOW KINDNESS is no exception to the literary realities that are the hallmarks of Bohjalian's writing. He balances --- seemingly effortlessly --- the two sides of the gun laws argument deftly, and he draws (once again) characters of great depth and dimension.
Three generations of the Seton family descend upon their country home in New England, as they have for a decade, to enjoy each other's company as the summer winds down. Nan Seton (matriarch of the family), her two children, their spouses, and their children fill the house with good conversation and healthy competition, despite their differences. This summer finds Catherine Seton restless and weary of her husband Spencer's activism on behalf of animals and vegetarians. John Seton is a secret hunter, fearful of telling his brother-in-law about his new extracurricular activity. The female cousins are tight, sweetly conspiratorial in an adolescent/pre-adolescent way. Family tensions abound under the surface and explode one tragic night when an unattended gun in John's car gets into the hands of Charlotte, a teenager.
What happens next is twofold: first, the initial unraveling of long-hewn relationships in the wake of near infidelity, physical disfigurement, familial silences and deceptions, and a threatened non-profit marketing campaign guaranteed to destroy all involved. And then, the finding of balance and peace that reunites all sectors of the family. How Bohjalian does it amazes me. Palpable tensions between siblings, spouses, and sisterly-cousins play themselves out on the pages amidst the propaganda of gun control and animal rights, without ever taking one side over another: in the arms argument and in the family arguments. In the end, it all just works out. As I said before, it's as if without effort, as if it was always known that it would work out.
Bohjalian has a rare talent. He tells stories packed with power in beautiful hushed tones -- almost whispers. Even the title, BEFORE YOU KNOW KINDNESS, implies all that has to transpire prior to good. This novel is all about the happenings that lead to the Seton family's ultimate contentment and happiness, and all that leads to the reader's ultimate contentment and happiness with a tale.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on December 22, 2010