Tawni O'Dell is no Edith Wharton...but I love her anyway. She grew up in coal mining territory...western Pennsylvania...and writes novels set in old coal mining towns...Coal Run, Sister Mine, Back Roads (which was an Oprah book club selection several years back)...and now Fragile Beasts.
The thing I love most about O'dell is that her tiny, one-traffic-light towns...and the characters that populate them...jump off the page. They spring to life right before your eyes. There you are sitting on the bleachers at the high school football game, riding around in a beat up truck...windows rolled down, pushing a cart up and down the aisles at the Kwiki-Mart, stopping to say hey to Bill...with his baseball cap pulled down low, six-pack tucked under his arm. You don't just picture the place, you feel it. You experience it. And the people...you feel like you know them. You get involved...invested in what's going on.
Fragile Beasts is about two high school aged kids, Klint and Kyle. Their mother left, moved to Arizona with some guy and took their little sister with her. Their father works at a job he hates and drinks to forget. One night Klint and Kyle are at a bonfire when their neighbor drives up, tears in his eyes, baseball cap clenched in his fists, and tells them their father has been in an accident. He was on his way home from Wing Night at The Rayne Drop Inn...he's dead.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, Candace Jack, daughter of the founder of J&P Coal lives in relative isolation, tucked away inside her mansion, nursing an ages' old broken heart.
Fragile Beasts is the story of how the boys and Candace come together and ultimately help each other heal.
The novel alternates between Kyle's voice and Candace's...but O'dell writes from both perspectives very convincingly. Neither voice feels contrived. It also shifts from present day Pennsylvania to 1960's Spain...where Candace fell passionately, tragically in love. The two venues feel equally three-dimensional...the gritty, decaying, coal mining town and the noble, vibrant Villarica.
It's not an Ethan Frome...it's not subtle or deeply nuanced. It's more of a delicious, soap-opera-y kind of novel. The kind that carries you away.