Thursday, September 1, 2011

Review: We the Animals

Summary: An exquisite, blistering debut novel

Three brothers tear their way through childhood— smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn—he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white—and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times. 

Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful. 

Written in magical language with unforgettable images, this is a stunning exploration of the viscerally charged landscape of growing up, how deeply we are formed by our earliest bonds, and how we are ultimately propelled at escape velocity toward our futures. -- HMH

When I was BEA 2011 a few months ago, one of the books that was featured in the Hot Book Club Titles Panel was WE THE ANIMALS by Justin Torres. When the publisher gave a description of the book, I thought it sounded like it might not be the easiest read because of the subject matter. But I had to admit that it did sound like it had the potential to be a fantastic read and a very powerful book -- not to mention a great book club selection.

So I was pretty darn excited to get my hands on an advance copy of this novel. However, I was a bit surprised by the size of this book. It's less than 150 pages. Now I've read enough books to know that a small book can pack a powerful punch, but I think WE THE ANIMALS gives new meaning to idea. I read this book in one sitting and I was honestly blown away by it.

WE THE ANIMALS tells the heart-breaking story of a family who does everything intensely. And by that, I mean they love intensely, but they also fight intensely. The family consists of a mom who is white, a dad who is Puerto Rican, and their three rambunctious boys (thus the title...We the Animals.) WE THE ANIMALS is this dysfunctional family's story narrated by the youngest son.

In many ways, WE THE ANIMALS is a coming-of-age story (although it's definitely not a traditional one.) The reader sees the this family's emotionally charged story through a young child's eyes and then follows the boy as he matures. This poor child (and really all three children) see and experience more in his young life than any child should ever have to see. And as the book progresses, I saw how this poor child's life became even more troubled and complex. When the kids were younger, they were best friends and watched out for each other; however, as the youngest son matured, his differences became more evident.

While this story most definitely touched my heart, I'd like to think that it wasn't very realistic. Unfortunately, I know that's not the case. WE THE ANIMALS gave me an insider's look into a family with problems -- money problems, anger problems, relationship problems, outsider problems, etc. I have read that the book is based on the author's own family, but the details are made up. Either way, it's an incredibly intense and powerful read.

There is no doubt that Justin Torres has major writing skills. Just to write such an emotionally charged story in so few pages is incredible. I swear there isn't a wasted word in this entire novel. Over and over again, I stopped to re-read a paragraph and sometimes even a chapter. His images were so vivid and raw and real - he truly is such a gifted writer!

After reading WE THE ANIMALS, I can definitely say that I agree with the publisher that this book is perfect for book clubs. Even though it's less than 150 pages, there is more to talk about within these pages than most 400 pages books. This novel is both gut-wrenching and thought-provoking, and I can see book clubs just embracing it. In addition to delving into the characters and their actions, there are also many literary devices to discuss. For example, the book title, the chapter titles, the themes, and the symbols all warrant some further discussion. There is a reading guide available as well, and I thought the fifteen questions were excellent. (It's a fantastic guide!) Some of the topics you might want to explore include love, abuse, parent/child relationships, family dynamics, acceptance (or lack thereof), hunger, and depression/mental illness.

I can't recommend WE THE ANIMALS enough. It's a beautifully written story that is guaranteed to take your breath away.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book.


Beth F said...

I too was curious about this one after that BEA panel. And wow -- now I think I'd better be sure to read it.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fantastic book! I like the fact that it is a short book, it would be perfect for Book Club during those busy months when it's hard to get in a larger book. Thanks!

Serena said...

Wow, they do everything intensely...this must have been exhausting. Thanks for the review.

bermudaonion said...

As you know, I finished this last night and found it somewhat disturbing. I keep thinking about it, though - especially the ending.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love when you and Kathy read stuff at the same time and getting to compare the reviews!

Karlie said...

Wow! Sounds like a powerful book.

Sandy Nawrot said...

This is exactly the same way I view Jacqueline Woodson. Her books rarely crack 150 pages, but they have made me cringe, cry, laugh, and everything else in the middle there. That is some serious talent. I'm all for anything with those few pages. I'm lucky to read 30 pages a day these days...

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I wonder what the definition of a novella is (and why is this a novel at 150 pages ... is it more attractive to market it as a novel?)

But, your review - wow! I'm intrigued by your mention of literary devices being a discussion point ... he sounds very clever.

Beth Kephart said...

I loved this book. It was fierce, deliberate, unstinting. Thank you, Julie, for your thoughtful comments here.